Tag Archives: Electronic Geek

Gadget Lust and How to Control it

Image by Flickr User SlipstreamJC

I, like many many other geeks, suffer from an affliction called gadget lust. Every new, shiny, blinky gadget that comes down the pike and replaces the previous shiny, blinky gadget must be had. I suppose it’s a subset of the general capitalist disease, but it’s a particularly virulent (and expensive) strain. And it’s not something I really want to cure.

I’d rather treat the disease. Manage the symptoms, as it were.

And what it comes down to for me, as an engineer and a technophilic geek, is examining the use case for each new gadget that I start lusting over. I have to take a coldly considered look at how the gadget would be incorporated into my life, and whether the change in behavior and routine it would bring will make life easier and/or more fun.

A few examples:

iPhone 4: I think the newest update to the groundbreaking smartphone is great (even taking into consideration the antenna issues, and whatever your feelings are about AT&T). The screen is awesome, it’s faster, the double cameras are cool, and so forth. It’s totally worthy of gadget lust, but I didn’t upgrade. My contract cycle was not up this time around, so we would have had to spend extra money to get this upgrade. With that in mind, I looked at what changes it would bring to my daily use patterns, and the answer, in all honesty, was “none.” So I passed. Next year, when my contract is up, I’ll probably jump on iPhone 5, but that’s next year. For now, I’m in remission.

iPad: This is a case where the gadget lust found a use case justification. As a blogger and editor, I have to check email and my blog constantly, and create light content as needed. The iPad fit a niche between my phone and my laptop making the bulk of my online time much more elegant and lightweight. It was an easy purchase.

Logitech Z515 Speakers: I spend a lot of my time sitting in a cubicle, and I like to have a little quiet music going. For a year or more, I’ve had a set of rechargeable capsule speakers. They’re ultra portable, but the fidelity isn’t much better than the speaker in my iPhone, I had to recharge them via USB each night, and plug them into a mic jack each morning. Then Logitech offered some review units of various speakers, and the Z515 caught my eye. It’s a rechargeable bluetooth-enabled portable speaker, which meant I wouldn’t have to go through the routine of plugging things in in the morning, and unplugging in the evening. The sound quality is leaps and bounds ahead of the capsule speakers (but then, it’s also more than 6 times larger and heavier). I can keep it plugged in, but the battery will last 8-10 hours on a charge. And best of all is the bluetooth. I come in, tap a single button, and it connects to the last audio source it used previously (usually my phone), and I can start playing music right away. It saves me minutes each day, and delivers a better listening experience. The use case analysis gives it a big thumbs up (which is why I plan to buy them when the review period is over)!

3D Television of Any Kind: Since 3D movies have, for the most part, failed to deliver the kind of experience to make everyone NEED to have such technology at home, I see no use case that makes sense to spend the extra money. Indeed, having to use special glasses (which will get lost or broken in a house with kids and animals), and the reduced viewing angles means the use case has a negative score.

You get the idea.

So yes, there are going to be new, shiny technological gadgets for us to lust over coming out every week (don’t get me started on all the new set-top boxes!). But we have to be able to take an intellectual cold shower and look at a few key factors before running our credit cards up to the limit:

1. Will this gadget save me time by having and using it?
2. Will this gadget improve the quality of my work or play?
3. Will this gadget make some aspect of my life easier/simpler/more elegant?

If you can’t honestly answer yes to any of those questions, then you should consider assuaging your gadget lust with the enjoyment you can get going onto the forums for the particular gadget and making fun of other people lusting over it. Or, I guess you could try guiding them through this same thought process and helping them manage their disease as well. Though that’s not as fun.


Quick! Get Yourself the Indie Love Bundle

The Indie Love Bundle: six amazing games

The Indie Love Bundle: six amazing games

I’m a big fan of “casual games,” the sort of thing that’s often played in a web browser; point-and-click puzzles, side-scrollers with some sort of twist, beautiful abstractions with lovely sounds. I stumbled across the Indie Love Bundle, a collection of six fantastic independent games (all of which have won some sort of award or another) for only $20. The catch is, you’ve only got until midnight on Friday to buy it.

I’d played demos of a few of the games before but hadn’t splurged on them, but at this price I bought mine today. A brief rundown of the games included:

  • And Yet It Moves: a puzzle-platformer where you can rotate the world to change gravity; the graphics look like torn-paper collages
  • Auditorium: an abstract game that requires you to push and pull a stream of colored lights to fill up the various meters; the music is affected by the gameplay
  • Aztaka: a side-scrolling RPG set in the Aztec world
  • Eufloria: a space-exploration game that involves … growing plants from the resources on the planets you discover
  • Machinarium: a point-and-click adventure about a little hand-drawn robot
  • Osmos: a physics-based abstract game involving absorbing other motes, while shooting out motes behind you to move (and shrink)

All of the games work for Windows; all except Aztaka and Eufloria work on Mac as well. And the great thing is, if you purchase the bundle you can choose individually whether to activate the game for yourself or send it as a gift. It’s a fantastic alternative to some of the other video games you may be playing, and the diversity in types of gameplay is remarkable. (Plus, it’s always great to support the indie developers!)

Visit the Indie Love Bundle website to watch a trailer and purchase the games.


The Wii Laptop Brings Portable Wireless Gaming

This is definitely the most impressive and good fun modification/hack I have seen in quite some time. Not being at all up to speed with a soldering iron, I respect those of you who engage in this type of activity.

I await a video that shows some actual game play. But, think of the possibilities - you could have random Wii tournaments on public transport - run with the help of some government arts funding!


A Brief History of Pretty Much Everything

You know that feeling when you see something that somebody much younger than you has done, that blows you away with its creativity and execution, and you realize that you couldn’t make something that awesome now, let alone when you were that age? That feeling, gentle reader, is called “humility,” and, if you’re at all like me, you’ll be experiencing it shortly after starting the video below.

This truly awesome stop-motion animation was created by a 17-year-old boy named Jamie Bell, who goes by “DispleasedEskimo” on YouTube. He created it, for an art class, over the span of only three weeks, using about 2100 sheets of paper and a number of ballpoint pens. Set to the Galop from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld — a piece of music better known for its association with can-can dancing — the video displays a very funny history of life on Earth, with a few extraterrestrial bits. Watch carefully for some very geeky bits inserted here and there.


Cogs Will Spin Your Gears

Cogs game in progress

I’ve always loved sliding tile puzzles, from the simple number kind to distant relatives such as the Rush Hour Traffic Jam puzzles. There’s just something appealing about putting things back in order with only the one open square to work with. Cogs adds a new dimension to the idea.

Created by Lazy 8 Studios, Cogs was first available for the PC and has just been released for the iPhone and iPod touch. Both versions are fairly similar with some minor tweaks in the iPhone version. Instead of completing pictures or putting numbers in order, your challenge in Cogs is to build machines by sliding gears together or hooking up steam pipes. The steampunk theme is great and carries over to the timer, move counters, and menu screens. It’s an attractive game with all sorts of mechanical contraptions and wonderful animation, and the sound effects are pitch-perfect.

Some of the puzzles are three-dimensional cubes (such as the one pictured) which require you to spin the cube around to solve each face individually. There are also two-sided sliders (you have to solve both sides simultaneously) and cylinders, nontraditional shapes that will really get you thinking. Inventor Mode is the basic game: put together the machine using the least amount of times and number of moves. Challenge Mode allows you to replay the puzzles you’ve solved, either in fewer than ten moves or in less than 30 seconds.

The one disappointment on the iPhone version is that the initial purchase only gets you ten puzzles. There are five “puzzle packs” in all, each available for $.99 (with a bonus 51st puzzle at the end). After you solve the first ten puzzles there’s a button to purchase the next pack in-game. But $4.95 for the whole thing is not a bad deal, and half as much as the (still not so expensive) $9.99 PC download. The PC version, appropriately enough, can be downloaded from Steam.

I really enjoyed the app, particularly since I’m the sort of person who likes to go for all the awards and achievements. Once you’ve gotten all the achievements, though, the replay value goes down. The iPhone version is tied to Crystal, a system for tracking your position on leaderboards and achievements as well as integration with Twitter or Facebook. (I generally don’t use this sort of feature but I suppose kids may like the bragging rights.)

One nice touch for the iPhone version is a tiny spark that shows where you’re touching the screen: depending on the puzzle it helps to have that pinpoint accuracy. Also, I was told there were some minor tweaks for the iPhone version to “smooth out the learning curve and get players into the 3D puzzles faster.”

Fellow contributor Jenny Williams had this to say about the PC version:

You have to do the first puzzle to unlock more puzzles, then do those to unlock more, etc. Once you solve a
puzzle, it gives you an medal for finding a solution, for how much time it took and for how many moves you used. As soon as you click “Play” for a puzzle, the timer starts up so you better be ready!

This game adds a whole new level of complexity to conventional slider puzzles, because you have to design the system while you move things around. You have to have the design in your head, and then figure out how to get the pieces in the right places. Often, though, there are two or more possible pieces which could both work in one place. Definitely a thought provoking game.

Since there aren’t too many puzzles, you could easily solve all of them in a short period of time (my husband and I played about 15 puzzles in an hour or so). So it’s a good game if you like to try to beat your previous scores on things, but once you figure out how to solve a puzzle, the charm may be gone. (Not sure how much the PC version of this game cost.) It’s a great game, though, very different from a lot of what’s out there, so major points for that.

If you like puzzle games, it’s definitely worth a try. You can download a free trial for the PC, or just buy the first puzzle pack for $.99 from the App Store to get a feel for it. Visit the Cogs Game website for more details (and a really cool demo video).

Wired: Very cool steampunk look, nice take on sliding tile puzzles. Just an all-around pleasure to play.

Tired: iPhone version separated into five puzzle packs (still not expensive, but disappointing if you’re not expecting it). Loses some replay value after you’ve gotten all the achievements.

Disclosure: GeekDad received a free download code for each version for review purposes.


February 10, 1996: The Machines’ Takeover Begins

Photo by Flickr user Mukumbura; used under Creative Commons Attribution license.

Photo by Flickr user Mukumbura; used under Creative Commons Attribution license.

Today marks the anniversary of a watershed moment in human history. In Philadelphia, the IBM computer named Deep Blue became, on February 10, 1996, the first machine to beat a reigning chess world champion, Garry Kasparov.

While nobody could have known at the time, this was the moment when machines truly began their conquest of Earth. Despite Kasparov rebounding from his first-game loss to beat Deep Blue in the match, the computer’s win demonstrated the inevitability of the rise of artificially intelligent devices. When the upgraded Deep Blue won the rematch against Kasparov the following year, there were those who thought this presaged humanity’s downfall, but they were largely scoffed at as conspiracy theorists.

So raise a glass in toast to our robot overlords… Did I say “overlords?” I meant “protectors.”


Happy Birthday Photoshop – The Prodigious Pixel Pushing Program Turns Twenty

ps

It was twenty years ago this month, that the first version of Photoshop was released. At the time its toolset was pretty limited and the application wasn’t capable of much. A second version, featuring paths followed later in the year, but it wasn’t until 1994 that version 3 with a new feature called “layers” that Photoshop began to be recognized as a game-changer. Today, it’s difficult to imagine where the Web (or our family Christmas cards) would be without Photoshop.

ps2Photoshop has spawned an entire industry of designers, educators, and plugin developers, not to mention brush creators and a whole generation of hobbyist image wranglers. The mighty app has been responsible for the creation of everything from the photojournalism of presidential debates to hastily layered text for a Lolcats image. The use of Photoshop has been heavily responsible for creating a generation of skeptics, thanks to those wishing to deceive or those simply inept at their jobs.

Let’s all give a hearty “Happy Birthday” to the program that has done so much to inform, entertain and, yes, sometimes fool us. It’s tough to imagine life without Photoshop.

(I’m pretty sure that splash screen is fake. I’ve seen my share of ’shops in my time and I can just tell. I mean look at the pixels in upper left. You can see where somebody swapped the eye because it doesn’t exactly match the background. It’s a pretty sloppy job, really. Anyone can see that …)

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Welcome the Chinese New Year with Kai-Lan on the DS

Next Sunday is a holiday of wonder and celebration. No, not Valentine’s Day! It’s the first day of the Chinese New Year. (2010: Year of the Tiger!) Perhaps the most important holiday in Chinese culture, the New Year is an opportunity to celebrate, exchange gifts, and reconnect with family and friends.

The makers of Ni Hao, Kai-Lan have made a charming Nintendo DS game, Ni Hao, Kai-Lan: New Year’s Celebration that will introduce fans of the show to some of the traditions associated with the Chinese New Year. The game is organized around the activities of a single day: waking up friends, going shopping for New Year’s clothes, cooking special food, playing music, making lanterns and a dragon mask, eating, being in a parade, and watching fireworks.

As in the tv show, Kai-Lan exhorts the player to join in the preparations for the holiday. Each of these activities is cleverly turned into a matching game, whether of shapes or colors or pictures. For example, here’s a screenshot (from the game’s website) of one of the cooking activities:

Most of Kai-Lan’s friends are along for the celebration. There is a moment of anxiety, when they’re concerned that they are too young to participate in the parade, but–at the risk of giving away a spoiler–everything works out. At the end of the game, players should be familiar with many of the different activities associated with the New Year.

The game uses most of the DS’s controls: at various points you tap and draw on the screen, and talk and blow into the microphone.

It is worth noting that game is pitched at *quite* young children: Preschoolers are the sweet spot. 5-year-olds might enjoy the game a few times, especially if they watch the show, but it’s definitely too simple for 6-year-olds.

Wired: Familiar characters and voices from the popular show; well-conceived story; dead-simple gameplay for young children or novice gameplayers.

Tired: Surprisingly little actual information about the traditions, or even related language, is conveyed in the game. (The Amazon listing for the game claims you can learn Mandarin from it, which would take a miracle.)

Other Ni Hao, Kai-Lan posts at GeekDad, all by Jonathan Liu:


Perform Engineering Calculations in the Palm of Your Hand

Image: MultiEducator, Inc.

Image: MultiEducator, Inc.

Are you an engineer who wishes they had access to some work-related calculations out in the field? A series of handy new apps may offer what you need. The Formulator Series by MultiEducator, Inc. is a series of iPhone/iPod Touch apps designed and packaged for a variety of engineering and other professionals. Depending on the application you choose, there are many formulas, calculations, regulatory codes and industrial code requirements included.

I volunteered to review a free copy of the Civil Engineer app, since my husband has been a registered professional civil engineer for 8 1/2 years. I knew he could give me some great expert input. I looked around the app first, and noticed many things I learned in high school math classes, but most of the rest was industry specific calculations with which I had no experience.

The main calculation categories for the Civil Engineer app are area formulas, beam, bridge, column, conversion, elevator, piles, piping, plates, roads, shear, soil, structural steel and wood. These are listed in the Contents, accessible at the bottom of the screen. Then each of those categories is broken down further, listing many different subcategories. Other options at the bottom of the screen include Recents (for recent calculations), Favorites (which you can set), Saved (where you can access specific number calculations you have saved in the past) and Search (very useful, since there are so many calculations included in the program). In Search, when you start typing in your search term, it immediately starts listing possible calculations to use.

Once you find the calculation you need, input the numbers for the asked-for variables, and it gives you the result with units. Once you have a result, you can see the definition of the formula, add it to favorites, save the calculation or email the entire result.

Image: MultiEducator, Inc.

Image: MultiEducator, Inc.

Both my husband and I found some mistakes in the program. Perusing the area formulas, I noticed that some of the shapes were listed in the singular, and some in the plural. In another area, they talk about Hazen-Williams friction head loss, but they list it as Hazen William friction head loss. They definitely need a proofreader who is an actual engineer to go back through their program. There are so many special terms specific to the industry that a specialist is needed for this task.

The program doesn’t always use standard industry terminology, spelling things out like “cubic feet per second” instead of just saying CFS. This takes up a lot more room on an already very crowded screen. The program also sometimes uses terms like “cubic feet a second” which isn’t the way most people say it. Also, the program says “circular curve” instead of “horizontal curve” and “parabolic curve” instead of “vertical curve.” Some of the options could be a lot more clear. It talks about the area of a pyramid or area of a sphere when they really mean surface area.

There are some sections with plenty of useful formulas, such as the beam section, and some with very few, such as for roads, bridges, soils, drainage and simple things like grade and distance. For horizontal curves and vertical curves, for example, it has about 1/3 of what it needs. My husband said that it looks like it is designed for structural engineers, based on what is included. The app doesn’t have a unit conversion from square feet to acres, which is the single most common conversion that my husband uses. So you’d have to do multiple calculations to make it all work, since there is no apparent way to send the result of one calculation to an input field of another. Also, there are missing conversions: they have a conversion for gallons to cubic feet, but not cubic feet to gallons.

Image: MultiEducator, Inc.

Image: MultiEducator, Inc.

The Civil Engineering app is by no means comprehensive, but it is a handy app that could save some time out in the field. You would have more than a calculator at hand, so you’d be able to do much more complicated calculations. To improve the program, my husband’s suggestion is to get the formulas in the book that is given out at the FE (Fundamentals of Engineering) exam (formerly the EIT), and that would be a good start for the formula list.

I asked him if it was a program he would use. His answer, “Probably, but not frequently. Most of the equations I use regularly I know off the top of my head.” He thought it would be helpful for a brand new engineer, or perhaps one in school. Would he pay $4.99 for it? “Yes.”

My husband thought that the big problem with this app is that it is a function solver, not an equation solver. A function will say, “Give me a couple of inputs and I will solve for one particular answer.” An equation allows you to input all but one of the variables and it will solve for the one you’re missing. This is a big difference. Because of what options are available in this app, you often triple your work to get the information you need. If it was an equation solver, you could just plug in what you have and get what you need.

The Formulator Series includes apps for architects, building engineers, builders, carpenters, civil engineers, electricians, environmental engineers, finance and business people, HVAC professionals, hydraulic engineers, mechanical engineers, plumbers and real estate investors. I can only assume that these other apps have similar strengths and weaknesses.

Individual apps are available for $4.99 to $6.99. They have about 100 of what they consider the most commonly used formulas. The professional packages are available for $9.99 to $19.99. These are bundled with the full regulations and also have the formulas from the individual apps.

Wired: It gives a lot of calculations that you might need quickly. Might be great for new engineers or engineering students. Good price.

Tired: It is by no means comprehensive. There are large gaps in what it covers. It seems to need some proofreading and more explanation.

Bottom line: A good start to a program that with a number of updates and enhancements could be a great program.

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Slugging It Out: Slug Wars for iPhone

slug-wars-logo_hires

Down in the garden there is a war being fought … slowly. Two armies of slugs face each other across the battlefield, each determined to break into the opponent’s base. Armed with acorn guns and salt shakers, they race—er, trudge—into the fray.

Slug Wars is a new real-time strategy game for the iPhone and iPod touch, a little reminiscent of Plants vs. Zombies, but with both offense and defense. Instead of just defending your own base, the goal is to get three of your slugs into the enemy base. You queue up various types of slugs, each with its own abilities and cost, and when they meet the opposing line they do battle. Get all the way across the field, and your slug enters the enemy base.

There’s a campaign mode pitting you against the computer, and winning unlocks new slugs to add to your arsenal. You start with the Soldier (very basic but fairly fast) and the Tank (slower, but can shoot from farther away). Eventually you get such slugs as the Kamikaze (with a salt-shaker strapped to its back) or the Airborne, carried by a butterfly over the heads of the other slugs. You earn more funds by defeating slugs and by picking up flowers that sprout up on the field, and the trick is balancing firepower and speed with your available funds.

Skirmish mode is just a one-time battle against the computer, and Slug-It-Out pits you against a friend. There aren’t really any options to speak of: just turning sound effects on or off. There’s also a brief tutorial in case you need some help getting started.

The Slug Wars battlefield

The Slug Wars battlefield

The controls are very simple: dial the wheel at the bottom of the screen to select a slug, and then tap the lane where you would like to spawn the slug. Since some of the heavy-duty slugs are slower and cost more, you have to balance them with the faster Soldiers to gain ground and pick up flowers.

The graphics are great, with different color palettes for the opposing armies. The character designs are funny. Aside from the Kamikaze, who douses himself and the nearest enemy with a pile of salt, there’s the Nuke, sipping a cup of salted seltzer water—when he explodes, he wipes out half the screen, both enemies and friendlies. The sound effects are decent but nothing especially exciting (mostly some battle sounds, and each type of slug has its own battle cry as it enters the field).

While some of the earlier levels took me a little longer to beat, I found that the difficulty level didn’t really keep pace with me. Most games I won three to zilch; the one time I lost (right after the Missile slug was introduced) the score was two to three. Probably playing against another person would be a little more interesting because their strategy would vary some. I found I was generally getting by with only four or five of the eight available slugs, and I was starting to lose interest in the game. I’ve gotten up to level 35 with the computer rarely getting a single score, and even that mostly just to see if it was going to get any harder. (It doesn’t seem to.)

A few other minor quibbles I had: you can actually start deploying slugs before it says “Ready, Fight!” so for a while the computer was getting a few slugs on the field before I was ready. Also, I did find that the slug-selection dial was a little, well, sluggish for me. (Note that I’m using a first-generation iPod touch so I know the processor speed on this is a bit slower than the newer versions.) Also, there wasn’t a very clear indicator of progress in the campaign, other than a small label at the bottom of the screen during the fight. It would have been nice to see that on the splash screen, perhaps, and maybe some statistics would be fun as well.

That said, until I had gotten all the slugs, it was fun trying to decide on a strategy and discovering the new slugs. If you’re a fan of tower defense games, this is certainly worth trying out, but you may want to find a partner because I didn’t find the AI particularly intelligent—I’ve settled on a strategy that seems to be unbeatable against the computer. They do promise to release more slug units in future updates, so I’m looking forward to see what they come up with.

Slug Wars is $1.99 in the App Store, and you can visit the Republic of Fun website for more information.

Wired: Amusing take on tower defense games that throws in offensive strategy; great graphics and character design.

Tired: Computer doesn’t put up much of a fight; bare-bones options.

Disclosure: I received a free download of Slug Wars to review.