Saturday, January 31, 2015

Review: Defense Grid 2 (PS4)

I'm a big fan of tower defense games, but many of the current mobile games (such as FieldRunners) leave me cold: the production values are low, and map after map is just the same. Defense Grid: The Awakening was a great game, however, and when I saw that Defense Grid 2 was on sale on the Playstation Network over the holidays I picked it up and started playing.

One of my potential misgivings about playing a former PC game on a game console was that the controls would be awkward. To my surprise they weren't. The controls are intuitive, and actually quite a bit better than mouse and keyboard in some ways. For instance, on the PC, I'd forget about the camera controls and not notice a new swarm of enemies appearing from a different direction, but that never happened on the PS4.

The campaign took a while to play on normal difficulty, and to the games' credit, there are no difficulty spikes that cause you to scratch your head and start hunting for a youtube video the way Defense Grid: The Awakening had. On the other hand, that could be because I did play the first Defense Grid (which had no difficulty settings) thoroughly, and it could be that with higher difficulty ratings I'd have to go back to youtube again.

The best thing about Defense Grid was the production values. The game reminded you at every opportunity that it wasn't a low budget affair. This game has full voice acting at every instant, and the sound effects and maps and resultant emergent behavior between the swarms and the towers are quite spectacular to watch.

Towers have changed. The command towers have been eliminated, and stealth enemies are easier to deal with than before, while flying enemies have been eliminated. The missile tower is now a powerful land-attack tower, and is valuable for it's reach, virtually eliminating the cannon.

The game plays fair: if you place towers without thinking you'll have a tough time finishing with all your cores intact. If you think it through a bit, you can usually do a good job of eliminating all the enemies.

All in all, at full price, this game is a bit much: while there's enough content to keep you coming back, there aren't enough maps or changes from the original if you played the first one to death (which I did). But at $10 or less, it definitely belongs on your PC or console of choice. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review: The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni is Helene Wecker's debut novel. Set in turn of the century New York City, it blends together Arabic and Yiddish myths (from whence the Jinni and Golem comes from) into a story that ties together the two disparate myths in a surprisingly satisfying fashion. This mix of myths, of course, is old hat to anyone who's played D&D, but is actually fairly rare in literature.

The story moves fairly slowly, with flashbacks to the past frequent, or even a diversion to tell the story of a secondary character. These transitions are occasionally jarring, reminding you that this is Wecker's debut novel, but as far as complaints go, it's not a bad one.

The two major characters are interesting, and pretty well developed, and surprisingly enough do change as the story progresses, which actually goes against the mythos of these creatures. Wecker does, however, provide reasonable-sounding rationale (as if you really would need rationality in terms of mythic creatures) as to why these two are special.

The human characters are more much stereotyped, with one secondary character's recovery from a Jinni-inspired illness happening without explanation. I would argue that more than any single human character, New York City is itself a major character in this novel. The setting is detailed and you do get a good sense of a living city, but since I'm not a big fan of cities, I'd just leave it at that and not speculate as to whether it's an accurate depiction of New York for those who are.

In any case, the story is interesting enough that I didn't complain about how slowly it moved, but went along for a ride. That's a great accomplishment in itself, which means that I will be looking for future novels by Wecker. Recommended.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review: Little Big Planet PS Vita

The Playstation Vita is easily Sony's least loved gaming platform. It's weaker than the PS3 or PS4 graphically, but despite that it's got a ton of potential. For instance, it has both front and rear cameras, front and rear touch screens, multi-axis gyrocsopes, twin joysticks, a d-pad, and 6 buttons. Unfortunately, relatively few games make use of all that latent potential. Golden Abyss and Tearaway are the only two that come to mind.

Little Big Planet (PS Vita) promised to also be an implementation of the game that made use of all these elements of the Vita, and by all accounts has the best implementation of Little Big Planet because of the touch screen. Set against that was that it's a platformer, which is my least favorite genre of game. The net result was that I waited until there was a sale on the game and picked it up for $7.20.

Well, it's a great platformer and an amazingly beautiful game. The voice actors were the same as the ones used in Tearaway, so the game gave me warm fuzzies the minute I booted it up and heard Stephen Fry's narration. Then the game walked me through the tutorial levels and I was hooked. Because platformers are such an old genre, the general tendency in platforming games is to set the difficulty such that "Easy" means "Difficult", "Medium" means "Not for anyone over 11", "Hard" means "Even those who are under 11 need to fake a fever to stay home in order to finish this game."  The result is that critically acclaimed games like Spelunky and Guacamelee are pretty much unplayable for me.

I'm happy to say that Little Big Planet was not designed like any of the afore-mentioned games. The difficulty is set low, and for all levels except for the stage-ending boss fights, you have infinite lives. That means even if you can't consistently do a jump or finish a stage, all you have to do is to complete it once (by accident or otherwise), and you won't ever have to do it again. The fact that this is a Vita game makes what's otherwise a frustrating genre much easier: while a PS3 or PS4  game would have to be turned off every so often to watch a video, stream a movie, etc., the Vita game can be suspended indefinitely so you can resume exactly from where you last left off. This game was compelling enough that I kept it on for days at a time, being careful to recharge the Vita in order to preserve my game state.

And yes, the game does make use of both touch screens, and the rear camera, but not the front. The two touch screen techniques in fact foreshadow their use in Tearaway, and are very usable. There's even a touch screen in a boss fight, and it's staged well enough that the fact that sometimes touch screens are finicky don't cause you to lose purely due to a hardware issue. And of course, the touch screen is delightful when it comes to customizing your protagonist hero, sackboy. You can change costumes, put stickers in the game levels, and even take pictures and use them to create your own levels.

The game has an extremely shallow story. This is par for the course for platformers. You don't play them for the story. The final boss was very challenging and required multiple attempts before I succeeded (the bosses always have a life-limit so you don't have infinite restarts), but the game played fair at every stage, requiring repetition but not insane skills.

When you're done with the story, you can turn to creating your own levels, playing contributed levels downloaded from the internet, or side games that were unlocked during your play. The side games are actually pretty fun, and some of them are even two player touch screen games, such as an air hockey simulation which I would have killed for when I was a kid on long car rides with my brothers. The sheer amount of content is incredible, and more than enough to justify the precious storage space the game takes up on the Vita.

In any case, this is definitely a must-buy game if you own a Vita. I'm glad I finally got a chance to play it. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Review: How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big

Authors are strange and irrational creatures. Ask any author with multiple books out which book they wrote they like the most, and they almost invariably point at their worst selling book. For instance, Douglas Adams was very fond of his one non-fiction book, Last Chance to See. I myself am not immune to this, and despite every other book of mine being much more successful, and having been less work to write, Independent Cycle Touring is still easily my favorite.

How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big, is by Scott Adams' account, his least successful book. Therefore he spends every other blog post touting the book despite its apparent failure. I succumbed to his marketing spiel, and of course, checked it out of the library, because I'm a cheap skate and I work that way.

Part autobiography, the book is exceedingly easy to read. I'll summarize a few main points:

  1. Processes and Systems are more important than goals.
  2. Affirmation works (surprisingly well), but he has no idea why.
  3. To be able to help others or contribute to society, you need to take care of yourself. That means that the following should be your highest priority: exercise, diet, and optimizing your personal energy level.
  4. Success depends very much on luck. It's very difficult to become successful by being world class at one or two skills. You have much better chances by learning multiple skills, and being the only person who can combine those skills in a package.
  5. Certain skills are particularly important: public speaking, business writing, a knowledge of practical, applied psychology, understanding basic technology, social skills, proper voice technique, good grammar, and basic accounting.
  6. You can reprogram your mind to do anything. Humans are not rational, and if you think of your brain as being subject to being able to be reprogrammed, you'll be able to do things that others routinely find difficult.
  7. Drink coffee. It lets you regulate your energy cycle deliberately, has many health benefits, (chiefest of which is that it puts you in the mood for exercise) and few side effects even if you become addicted.
The most comparable I've read on this topic is John T Reed's Succeeding, which I enjoyed. This book is much cheaper, but it's also much less practical when it comes to dating methods, for instance, or risk analysis, but they both come out on the same things, which is that process and systems are critically important.

The biggest weakness of Adams' book is that he's a smart guy, but he doesn't point out how important geographical location was, despite his success depending entirely on it. He mentioned moving to the Bay Area early on in his career, and his resulting career couldn't have succeeded without that move. You should always move to a location that's appropriate to your talents as much as possible.

In any case, Reed's book is much better, more detailed, and more likely to be of practical use to the average person, but Adams' book is funnier, cheaper, and probably more accessible. In any case, the book is smart and well written and worth your time.

Recommended.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Review: The Walking Dead Season 2 (PS4)

After playing the first season of The Walking Dead on the PS Vita, I decided that there was no way I would pay full price for Season 2, and that the Vita was not a great platform for these games. I noticed, however, that The Wolf Among Us on the PS3 didn't have any of the technical issues that the PS Vita version had, so when there was a sale on the PS4 for Season 2 for $6.25, I decided that it was worth the shot.

You see, what I've noticed is that while the games aren't really games, they've so far been consistently the kind of games I'd play all the way through to the end. The reason for this is that they're not really games, and don't depend on acquiring skill through repetition and frequent failure to discourage you. They're really more like slightly interactive TV shows, and if you view them that way you don't feel so bad that as a "player" you absolutely have no control over what happens in the story line.

In many case, Season 2 is even worse than Season 1. At least in Season 1, you made a choice early on in the game which affected which characters showed up in the next few episodes. In season 2, that illusion was completely stripped away, and you truly have no control over the outcome of the game.

This places more of a burden on the writing, and by and large the writing is actually pretty good. There are several tense moments, and in at least one episode I felt outrage and betrayal, which the added interactivity did enhance over a TV show.

The production values are excellent, with custom music (and different ending theme song for every episode!), and rendered beautifully. Because it's an animated feature, there should be no difference between playing it on a PS3, PS4, PC, or smart phone platform.

In any case, don't pay full price for this work of interactive fiction (where you actually don't have many choices anyway). Pick it up when there's a sale, and enjoy it as though you're watching a TV series, just with a controller in your hand.

Recommended at a discount.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Review: Joyland

Joyland is Stephen King's serial killer/murder mystery set in an amusement park. It is a short quick read, but a lot of fun and well worth your time.

As time goes on I've come to appreciate Stephen King's writing more and more. His voice is incredibly authentic, and serves the narrative perfectly. What's more, his narrative works on two levels: one is that of an old man in his 60s recounting an event that took place in his youth. The second is that of a man explaining how a carnival works.

King deftly sketches out all the main characters quickly and succinctly while still making each of them 3 dimensional. Like all mystery novels, every detail's important in the novel, and casual scenes described earlier in the novel become important later. Yes, like all King novels there's hints of the supernatural in the novel, but King has great restraint and a little goes a long way.

In any case, the novel is very readable, moves along at a good pace, and has next to zero padding. While not deep literature or even deeply moving, it's a fun read kept me coming back to it over and over again.

Recommended.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Review: Infamous First Light

I don't usually play or buy downloadable content (DLC) for computer games. They're rarely discounted, and at full price represent unusually poor value. For instance, Infamous First Light costs $15. Unlike typical DLC, it doesn't require the main game, Infamous Second Son to play. However, unlike DLC, main games such as Infamous Second Son are frequently discounted, and I got my copy of it at $19.95, which provide quite a bit more content. This pricing structure is usually because while main games have to be distributed through retail outlets and deliver only 50% of their retail price to the developer, DLC are instead distributed through online stores and deliver at least 70% of their retail price to the deliver. (In the case of Infamous First Light, since Sony owns the Playstation store, it gets 100% of the take, unless you go through an intermediary like Gamestop)

This month, however, Playstation Plus (which has a well-deserved reputation as the best deal in gaming) provided First Light as one of its games, so I gave it a shot.

In my review of Infamous Second Son, I noted that the neon powers of the game are the most fun to play with, and indeed, developer Sucker Punch must have recognized this, since they focused the entire DLC around Fetch, the character who had the neon powers. The story is told in the form of flashbacks from a period when Fetch has been captured by the DUP and is forced to reveal her powers and train as a DUP lackey. All this takes place ahead of the main story in Infamous Second Son, and so can be considered a prequel.

In terms of story, Fetch is a better character than Delsin: she's much less of a punk, and far more sympathetic. The problem with the plot is of course, you can see the plot twists a mile a way, even if you've never played the main game. This is the norm for video games: the plot exists as nothing but a series of set pieces for the game play to hang on.

The game play is fun. Fetch's neon powers are varied and interesting, and the game does a good job introducing those powers gradually and incrementally as part of the story. Even better, unlike the main game where you felt like you had to pursue a substantial part of the side quests in order to have a decent shot at finishing the game without a large number of deaths, the game is designed such that even if you didn't finish any of the side quests you could complete the main storyline with ease.

The reason for this is that the game is designed to keep you playing if you're a competitive gamer by comparing yourself with others on the leaderboard in a set of fixed arenas. I don't enjoy repetition, so I didn't bother with any of these, but if you are, then the game would probably keep you playing for quite a bit past the 4-6 hour main storyline.

In any case, as I've noted, DLCs are usually poor value compared to the main game, but if you can get over that or if you really enjoyed Infamous Second Son, this DLC gives you more content with the best parts attached. And of course, this month, it's yet another reason to get a subscription to Playstation Plus.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Gaming Nostalgia

I've been playing a lot of Resogun, recently. Now usually when I finish  a game, I don't ever go back to it. But Resogun has something that more recent AAA games rarely have, which is that it's very replayable.

Resogun, of course, is a throwback to the original Defender, which was an incredibly tough game. I never got good at Defender, because at a quarter a pop, as a kid I never had the kind of money to get good at any of those games, and my parents never had a game console in the house.

All the old games I have nostalgia for that I actually played, therefore had to come on a PC. What springs out to my mind is the old time infocom text adventure games. Those too, were also incredibly hard, and the only one I ever completed was A Mind Forever Voyaging, which was one of those specifically designed to be less challenging.

I remember once after an all night session of Infocom text adventures Larry Hosken, my brother, and I attended a party at Paul Holland's place on Sand Hill Road. We were playing ping pong next to an air hockey table, and one of the ping pong balls fell into the swimming pool. We looked at each other, read each other's mind, and said, "GET PING PONG BALL. PUT PING PONG BALL ON AIR HOCKEY TABLE. PUT QUARTER IN AIR HOCKEY TABLE." Clearly, thinking let an Infocom game all night had affected our brains.

And yes, I did write TinyMUCK 2.0 earlier while an intern at Bellcore (Jon Blow told me at one point that his first exposure to C was trying to read my code/modification of the original TinyMUCK).

To be honest though, when I think back to the games of that era and compare to the games of today, I'd say that today's games are better. In general, they have more finely tuned difficulty levels, the in-game tutorials are fairly well done, and  of course the visuals are just amazing these days.

So if you asked me what I'd put in my own man crate for nostalgia gaming, I'd stick in a USB 3.5" Floppy Drive and one of the Lost Treasures of Infocom packs. Or, since nowadays you can just pretty much download those games on the internet, if you ask me, I'd much rather have a PS Vita loaded with a big memory card and Resogun.

We live in the golden age of computer games, and there's just no comparison.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Review: Kindle Unlimited

During the holiday season, it was possible to get Kindle Unlimited for $5 a month for 6 months. At $10 a month, I wouldn't have gotten value out of it, but at $5/month, it wouldn't take too many books to justify the price of the subscription, so I took a leap of faith and signed up.

What If? was the first book I read on Kindle Unlimited, and it was great, justifying almost a third of the price of the subscription all by itself. But what I discovered was that the real value of Kindle Unlimited is picking up the Kindle Singles that you wouldn't have paid for and read, because those are too expensive for the amount of money they ask for.

For instance, the Playboy Interview of Milton Friedman isn't worth $1, but with a Kindle Unlimited subscription, it's worth reading just to see how much of a crazy guy he was. (And yes, he wasn't all crazy, but he was definitely an extremist, even viewed from the lens of today) I similarly enjoyed the Stephen King interview.

What I did learn is that Kindle Unlimited isn't actually unlimited. It's limited to 10 books (or interviews, whatever you call them). So you can only have a number of these things checked out at once. 10 is big enough that if you have a couple of novels out, you're not going to run through them during the course of a flight or even a week long trip. But if you fill it up with interviews or other Kindle singles, one plane flight might just wipe you out, so you have to plan ahead.

One of the interesting things about Kindle Unlimited is that if you check out the Most Read Books section, you'll discover it's full of romances and YA novels. Which tells you a lot about what the population of people who subscribe to Kindle Unlimited is. The Science Fiction and Business section, by comparison, is very disappointing, though my book of the year, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is available on Kindle Unlimited, and is well worth the read.

Now, there are number of classics available, such as The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, but chances are, you've already read them. But one person's classics is another person's casual reading, so if you missed the Harry Potter series or the Hunger Games series, Kindle Unlimited does give you access to those.

One last genre that's worth pointing out is that the entire Lonely Planet series is available on Kindle Unlimited. Since those books go out of date quickly and the Kindle edition of those books are extremely expensive to buy, it's a very good use of the Kindle Limited edition.

All in all, I think I'll get sufficient value out of the subscription for a 6 month subscription, but I'm unlikely to renew. $5/month seems right for the service, and $10/month seems too much, unless you're one of those who reads 2-3 romance novels a week.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Review: Boyhood

I'm a Richard Linklater fan. Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight were all excellent movies, as intense as any experiences you're likely to get in life. So when I saw that his work this year was Boyhood, I had very high expectations and dug out some time in my wife and my schedule to see it.

In case you missed the hoopla, the movie's gimmick is that it ages the actors in real time. In other words, the movie takes place over a period of 10 years, and the actors met every few years to shoot the next parts of the movie, so all the growing up and aging is done naturally, without need for much make up. This approach makes the movie very natural, and looks as real as a documentary.

Unfortunately, the story is terrible and banal to the extreme. Lots of threads are unresolved, but perhaps the best thing I can say about the movie is that I can use it in the future to show my kids as an example of what a terrible life awaits you if you choose to study useless subjects like psychology and photography instead of say, Computer Science.

For an example of a good movie in this genre, watch My Father's Glory instead. I feel like my hours spent watching Boyhood was wasted instead, and that the critics that praised this movie to the heavens are praising it just to be fashionable.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Managing Storage in the World of Cloud Storage

I was a Google employee when Gmail first launched. At that time, 1GB of e-mail storage was stupendously huge, and you could never use it up. I remember once calculating that the amount of storage Gmail was adding was increasing at such a rate that I could never use it up.

I turned out to be wrong. For one thing, Google has stopped increasing the amount of storage available at 16GB. While that's huge for e-mail, Google made a second move that made that amount of storage too small. It commingled PicasaWeb storage, Google Drive storage, and e-mail storage all in the same place.

While the rest of the world uses crappy cell phone cameras and uploads 1024x768 resolution photographs, I use real cameras and upload full size 10MB photos. This used up storage at a stupendous rate. For a while I was OK, since I was on a legacy storage plan which granted me an additional 20GB of storage at $5/year. But due to a snafu while I was traveling recently, my legacy plan failed to renew and I was stuck being over quota.

Now, I could pay $24/year for 100GB, but seriously? When I could get 5TB Unlimited Storage for $100/year and get Microsoft Office in addition? No thanks. I didn't grow up paying for over-priced products when cheaper alternatives are better. Heck, buying a 4TB hard drive now costs $130, which is a far better deal by any account, and of course, services like SmugMug cost $40/year for unlimited photo storage.

Now, I could just live with not posting any more new photos onto my PicasaWeb account, but being over-quota also meant that I'd stop receiving e-mail, which isn't acceptable. So I set about deleting content from my quota. Oh boy! PicasaWeb gives you no way to find out which albums are using the most storage (or using any storage for that matter, since despite my best efforts I occasionally still use my phone for photos). I also had to be careful with which photos I deleted, since many of my photo albums are linked to by various blog posts.

As a result, I ended up having to delete e-mail. I tried to move e-mail from the cloud to local storage using Thunderbird, but apparently Thunderbird was never designed to handle the kind of volume of e-mail I had using IMAP. It would tell me that it's moved data to local storage but when I visited the local storage folder none of the e-mails were there. (Needless to say, I only did this with e-mail I didn't care about, so the loss was no big deal)

After much effort, I managed to get my e-mail and web photos down to 95% of my quota, but now I'm stuck with managing my e-mail strictly to stay under quota. So I'm now going to start using a local e-mail client (I'm still reviewing alternatives but haven't found a good one yet), and then store e-mail locally rather than in the cloud for anything older than a month. It's a pain, since I enjoy using search, but the reality is, cloud storage is still too expensive compared to local storage for someone who get gobs of e-mail or has years of e-mail to store.

Ironically, what this means is that more of my photos will be available on Facebook (albeit at a lower resolution) than on Google's servers because of this pricing issue. But them's the breaks. I will  have to find a public photo solution later.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Review: Big Skinny World BiFold Wallet

I travel just a few times a year, but I'm weight conscious. Over the years, I've worn out any number of wallets and abandoned several for being impractical or worthless, but never felt compelled to write a review until now.

I bought a Big Skinny Men's World BiFold with Zipper a year ago from a GroupOn deal, and it has become my default wallet of choice for all occasions, eliminating all other wallets. The big features for me are:
  1. Wide enough for non-US bills, which are frequently much wider or taller than US currency.
  2. Thin Nylon. Leather stains and wears out for me very quickly, while producing fat wallets. Nylon isn't waterproof, but it's water resistant enough to survive a Tour of the Alps, and a year later has shown no sign of wear whatsoever. This is a very sturdy wallet.
  3. Plenty of pockets for cards. You can't travel without a number of cards nowadays, and with 8 card pockets, this has plenty of room for my travel cards, credit cards, and business cards (yes, I actually carry printed business cards with me)
Overall, I've been extremely satisfied with this wallet. So much so that this year, when I found another Groupon Deal, I ordered two Skinny Mini Pens (so that I'm no longer forced to borrow from neighbors whenever I'm filling out customs forms), and a Big Skinny Passport Holder Wallet from them (holds 4 passports, which is what I need when I travel with family).

I give therefore Big Skinny wallets the highest recommendation. If you're using other wallets and have been dis-satisfied by them for various reasons, give one of their wallets a try. They are well-thought out and well worth their (admittedly high) price.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Cancun 2015

I'd been in Cancun before (in 2011, in fact) but only to dive in Cozumel and a cenote near Playa Del Carmen. That time, my camera flooded very early in the trip, so I was left with no pictures and therefore didn't bother with even a trip report.

This time, I had much better luck.

It is a truism that the first time you visit a place, you screw up a lot. It's only on later trips that you've optimized the heck out of your visit and can easily know what to do and when, so this trip report is more a "tips" report than any details.

We arrived on New Year's Eve, and then spent a day at the beach. The best snorkeling in the area was supposedly the Club Med next to the Westin, and I spotted an eagle ray, which was pretty good. But the winds were too high for Bowen to swim safely in the water, so we went back to the hotel's pool.

On the second I did a reef dive. The winds were high but the currents were strong, keeping the water clear. I've learned that diving in murky water does nothing for me, so this was a fairly decent experience. I soon learned why there were no dive moorings in the area. You jump in and are immediately swept into the water at 1-2 knots, too strong to swim against! So every dive was a drift dive, where you got picked up by the dive boat at the end. One of the other divers just kept throwing up, which must have been a miserable experience.

We went to Xcaret, which is a Mexican theme park. Reviews compared it with Disneyland, but it's a bit better if your kids are older or if you're adventurous. The centerpiece of the park is a kilometer worth of underground river that you get to swim through. Bowen was terrified at the beginning but enjoyed it within 200m of the swim. The place also had hammocks to lie in, a decent aquarium (not great), and various activities like swimming with dolphins, etc., which we didn't do since Bowen was still too young for it. I wouldn't recommend taking the plus package since the a la carte meals are so huge that you wouldn't save any money over just buying the a la carte package. The night show is also worth going to, but we didn't stay for the whole thing since Bowen fell asleep in the middle and we decided it was better to just return to the hotel earlier so he could sleep better.

Then I did a cenotes dive. The cenotes have the clearest water you can ever dive in, and it's mostly freshwater, which gives your gear a good rinse. Unfortunately, after that, the rest of my dives got canceled due to high wind and waves, so no more diving this time.

We'd booked our hotel through Costco, which had a deal with the J.W. Marriott in Cancun. In retrospect, staying at downtown Playa Del Carmen or at the Iberostar in Cozumel would have been a better idea, since downtown Playa Del Carmen was much more fun than downtown Cancun, and the Iberostar wouldn't try to nickel and dime you the way Marriott does.

Fortunately, the hotel next to the Marriott, the Hard Rock Hotel, had free wifi and if you wrangled a day pass, you got an all you can eat buffet too. I was impressed by nearly every one of their onsite sit-down restaurants. The kids facilities were pretty cool. The decor was garish, however, and the place was pretty darn crowded.

One nice thing about the area is cheap buses. A highlight was dining at Pericos. Authentic Mexican food, a great atmosphere, and just fun. Highly recommended. They even rolled out a bed for Bowen when he fell asleep on the bus on the way to the restaurant. A don't miss if you're in the area.

We also went to Playa Del Carmen and returned by bus, and it's a crowded and uncomfortable experience, but Bowen decided he enjoyed buses, so we put up with it.

I was disappointed that none of the hotels had hobie cats or other sailing dingies for rent, but the Hard Rock Hotel staff told me to just walk across the street to Aquaworld, where for $30 an hour I could rent a hobie cat. That took care of the sailing fix for me and Bowen. The boats were old and with a 3 year old aboard I wasn't going to push the speed limits, but it was still fun. They'd force you to go through instruction if you don't have a sailing certification so bring yours if you have it.

All in all, I'm not sure I'd have opted for another land vacation in the Caribbean, but for being stuck on land it was ok. Certainly the cenotes dives can't be had anywhere else, so if you're a diver for at least one dive you should suck it up and go for it.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Review: Ray Bradbury: The Last Interview

Ray Bradbury: The Last Interview, is a collection of interviews with the famous author before he died by his biographer, Sam Weller. It contains lots of little tidbits about the author that I did not previously know, like for instance his attendance of Comicon from its inception, that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 on rented type-writers at the UCLA library, and his involvement in several projects including architectural projects.

I also discovered several contradictory attitudes in the author which I was previously only slightly familiar with, and the book reminded me why knowing too much about authors whose work you enjoy isn't always a good idea.

At the $9.99 the price is very steep for a few short pages, but it's possible to check it out from the library and read it quickly.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Review: Final Horizon (PS Vita)

I'm a sucker for the tower defense genre, and happily sink hour after hour into the genre. One of the interesting things about the genre is that it's not usually super twitchy. In fact, in certain scenarios (for instance, certain levels of Defense Grid) you could almost just set everything up at the start and then sit back and watch the show.

Final Horizon is entirely different. First of all, the boards are small, which is a great fit for the PS Vita (though the game is available for the PS4 as well). Secondly, the activity on the game is frentic, as you furiously go from repairing towers (yes, they can be damaged in this game), upgrading them, or switching from one tower to the next as the attack evolves.

The story is forgettable, which is typical of games in this genre (though Defense Grid is a notable exception), and the music tends towards being repetitive. Unlike other games of the genre, however, each level is playable and over within a matter of 5 minutes, even the final boss level. That makes Final Horizon ideal for the PS Vita, which was what I played it on.

With the Vita, everything depends on the controls and the implementation, and I'm happy to report that Final Horizon does everything right. Scrolling, tower selection, repair, and upgrades are easy. If you screw up in this game, it's not because the controls suck.

Every mission has a primary objective for you to get through, but also multiple secondary objectives as well. While this made me play a few levels over just to try to get the secondary objectives, the game didn't build in enough of a reward (other than perhaps trophies) to get you to play over and over again until you get it done. That's probably a good thing, since I spent plenty of time playing the game and while it was good, it wasn't so good that I felt like I needed to put more time into it.

Nevertheless, it's a very different take on the tower defense genre (no fixed patterns to the incoming aliens, no pre-defined path, and destructible towers), which makes it a recommended change up from the usual games. That it easily fits onto the PS Vita for travel makes it ideal.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Review: Sand Omnibus

Hugh Howey has written yet another novel in the tradition of Wool, his previous post-apocalyptic world. In many ways, this novel amplifies both the strengths and the weaknesses of his previous novels.

Howey can write a compelling plot in cliff-hanger style. He can weave multiple threads of narratives together. What he can't do is create a world that's believable, nor can he do character development. Nearly everyone's a 2D character to start, and they don't change much, no matter what.

Sand is set in a world where the deserts are taking over the USA from the East to West. (This in itself is unrealistic, since prevailing winds are West to East and deserts should spread that way) Taking place in Colorado, the inhabitants of this world face the constantly encroaching sand, burying their houses, forcing them to build higher and higher, while constantly bailing sand away from critical infrasturcture like wells.

In a steady state world, this doesn't make sense, since dunes don't actually build up into infinity, so Howey has to explain that, and it's part of the plot of the book. There's also no explanation of where food came from, no mention of livestock, and no understanding of how even foundations can work in this environment.

What there is, however, is no shortage of cool toys. There are sarfers, sailboats used to traverse sand, and there's sand diving equipment, very similar to diving equipment used in water today, but obviously, with sand traversal and vision in mind. Howey does a decent job of working out the implications of the existence of such equipment, and uses these tools marvelously in the plot.

All in all, this is a decent airplane novel, and at the prices Howey's books usually come in (I read it for free as part of a Kindle Unlimited subscription), is worth picking up. But is it stellar? No, it's more like a throwback to the old days of science fiction where the writers didn't even have scientific backgrounds and didn't do any research for their novels. Still, much like Wool, it was compellingly readable.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Review: Oh Myyy!!

Oh Myyy!! is George Takei's how-to book about how to use Social Media if you're a celebrity. It's short, and rather than talk about how to become famous prior to social media's existence, it discusses his experience using Twitter and Facebook, and the various tools he uses to keep his audience engaged.

If you follow Takei on Facebook or Twitter, you'll see that the best thing about following him is that he reshares many photos and memes that are funny and interesting. The sprinkles those throughout the book, and most of them are indeed at least amusing.

The stories about how he uses social media to promote his causes (LGBT rights, as well as other Asian American rights) are entertaining and interesting. Keeping his audience engaged seemed to take quite a bit of work, as he had to preschedule Facebook wall posts sometimes days in advance, as well as having to turn down many requests from folks asking for help. He even mentions having to had to hire an intern to manage those requests and curate them.

As an airplane read it was breezy and entertaining, and you can't ask for much more out of it.

Mildly recommended.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Review: Afterworlds

Afterworlds is Scott Westerfield's Young Adult novel about writing. It's an ambitious work.

The book's structured between alternating chapters, winding together two separate stories. One is about Darcy Patel, a 17-year old who won the novel jackpot: a $200,000 advance for a two-book contract with a major New York Publishing house. Flush with success, she cooks up a scheme to avoid going to college, move to New York, and become a full-time novelist. This story-within-a-story is a coming of age story, well-described and imagined, but perhaps full of Scott Westerfield tropes, in which at least 50% of all couples are gay.

The other novel-within-a-novel is Patel's debut novel, a paranormal romance about a girl who learns that there is an afterlife, and that she's one of the select few who can move between the worlds of the dead and the worlds of the living.

A lesser writer would have made the two novels tie together explicitly, but Westerfield's too crafty to resort to a cheap trick like that. What he does show is the writing process, where Patel's real-world relationships, feedback from readers and editors and changes in her life, affect the outcome of her novel. The real-world sections balance out the paranormal romance, grounding it and making it less shallow, which it would have been by itself.

As a self-published writer, I've always wondered why people fall over themselves to give away 80% of their income to New York Publishing companies. This book goes a long way towards explaining that: it's a high flying life, with book tours, adoring fans, all creating a show-biz like atmosphere, a narcotic at any age.

In any case, this was a long read, but a fun one, and while neither novel would have worked separately, together, the two provide a coming of age story and a complete package that works.

Recommended.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Review: Little Tikes Pirate Ship Toddler Bed

We'd been sharing a room (but not co-sleeping) for months during our remodeling, and now it's finally time for the parents to move out of Bowen's room. To help the process along, I decided that we could have him get a new bed that would take up more room, as well as making him feel like a big boy.
We reviewed several beds online and settled on the Little Tikes Pirate Ship Toddler bed, since memories of the sailing trip in the Caribbean were fresh in his mind.

The cheapest place to buy this turned out to be at Target, the only store that didn't burden you with a ginormous shipping cost. When the package arrived I understood why. This thing was huge, about the size of a golf-cart packed.

Putting together the bed was fairly straightforward, but took the better part of 2 hours with power tools. This included Bowen "helping". The mattress turned out to be a standard size toddler mattress, so we didn't have to get a new one. The various lights on the bed require 9 AAA batteries, but the box didn't have any. Lucky for me, I happened to have a ton of batteries lying around anyway.

The nice feature of the lights on the boat is that they time out and put themselves to sleep, so you won't be replacing those batteries too often (they're all LED lights). I was worried that Bowen would be so excited that he wouldn't be able to sleep, but it turned out that he slept just fine on the bed even during the first night.

He really loves the boat, and enjoys turning the wheel, and he's now able to distinguish port from starboard, and knows how many cannons he has.

We couldn't have moved him into this bed any sooner, since we didn't have room until after the construction was complete. However, if we had the room, we should have moved him much sooner: his crib had a toddler mode, but he'd fallen off it a few times, while this toddler bed's designed in such a way that he can't roll off it, while ensuring that he could get in and out of bed himself if he was awake.

Recommended.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

2015 will see the debut of a full-on Windows phone

I try not to make tech predictions, but sometimes one just kicks me in the face. Windows 8 has been a massive failure, and Microsoft is moving towards Windows 10, which promises to deliver a touch-friendly UI for touch-screen devices while providing a desktop experience for traditional PCs and laptops. Similarly, the Windows phone ecosystem has been stuck, with much fewer apps available in that ecosystem, and essentially only the low end Windows phones have any traction on the market.

If you look at the current market, the trend is clear: Windows tablets and Windows phones pretty much own the low-end of devices, with devices like the HP Stream able to get relatively good displays (1280x800), high performance (Atom Z3745 quad core), and a good single-user experience into a $100 un-subsidized package.

The next step is obvious: eliminate Windows phone and Windows RT, and run full on Windows 10 on a 5inch (or bigger) device with a telephony stack. What can you do with this device that you can't do on regular phones?

  1. The Windows phone web-browser is easily the weakest browser on modern phones today. Replace that with IE 11 on Windows 8.1, and you go from the weakest browser to the most powerful browser on a mobile device, with full on access to services that Google (for instance) deliberately locked away from Windows phone devices like Youtube, Maps, and other services.
  2. With a full-on Windows host and x86 processor, many of the appstore advantages that Android and iOS have become irrelevant. For instance, Garmin connect doesn't have a Windows app, but if you run real Windows on your phone, who cares? The same goes for photography apps.
  3. Remote management and central device management for enterprises become a non-issue, since a Windows 10 phone would easily be managed using the same techniques desktop PCs can.
  4. Application developers can abandon having to cross-compile for multiple platforms and go back to optimizing only for the x86 platform.
The arguments against are fairly obvious:
  1. Viruses and malware target Windows. Who would want a virus on their phone? The answer to this is obvious: a locked down Windows 10 phone would only accept apps from the Windows app store, eliminating the possibility of viruses and malware. This contradicts #2 above, but just like on Android, you could have a checkbox that lets you access the full on OS for power users while protecting the naive ones.
  2. The telephony stack on Windows 8.1 is non-existent, and Intel's SOFIA LTE chip isn't slated to launch till mid-year 2015. An immature telephony stack could create lots of problems. On the other hand, unlike the huge variety of devices that Windows has had to contend with in the past, having just one chip to target to could make the telephony stack relatively stable.
  3. Having a Windows desktop available doesn't necessarily make a 5" phone form factor usable. In particular, with a 1080p display on a 5" phone, the UI elements on the desktop would be pretty much unusable. The UI issues that need to be overcome would be considerable. Note that with a phablet form factor (6" and up), this issue would be largely mitigated.
In recent months, it's been quite obvious that there aren't many reasons to shell out for a high end phone (of any manufacturer) for anything other than fashion reasons. However, a full-on Windows phone with a high quality screen could have a certain set of people (myself included) willing to pay the premium that such a phone could command, provided Microsoft and Intel find a way to deal with all the above issues. Such a product would finally allow Microsoft to escape the low-end "ghetto" that Windows Phone has been pigeon-holed into, and attack the high end of the market and provide some competition to the Android and iOS systems on the market by playing into the strength of Windows and its legacy apps.

Happy New Year!