Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Technological Manic Depression

Aug 27 2010 Published by under Self-improvement,Technology

"wallpaper — The ISLAND" by balt-arts on Flickr

"wallpaper — The ISLAND" by balt-arts on Flickr

Some days, I seek hyper-technology. I want to engage folks on Twitter, post on my blogs, and clean up every broken link on my websites. The online world feels so vibrant and interesting.

On other days, I want to give up everything more advanced than a clock/radio. I want to sit down with a big stack of books and a hot mug of tea, or throw wide my kitchen cabinet doors and fire up the stove. The online world feels so shallow and pointless.

I don’t know why this is. Perhaps, in my passion, I spend too much time in one world, overdosing on its pleasures.

In any event, I’ve learned to take advantage of both moods. When I’m diving into cyberspace–and wouldn’t it be wonderful if the experience really did mirror early science fiction portrayals of descent into a neon wonderland?–I write blog posts and clean up my sites. During down times, I let that content dribble out.

This has been easiest with Otaku, No Video. When excited, I record lots of videos, then I release them on a strict schedule. I usually have between one and two weeks’ worth of videos completely finished sitting on my hard drive, ready to be released on schedule.

Some days, I wish I could be less extreme in my approach. Nevertheless, it works.

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Can’t Get Technoooo Satis-fack-shuuuuun

Aug 23 2010 Published by under Technology

"Dicken's Village at Night" by kevindooley on Flickr

"Dicken's Village at Night" by kevindooley on Flickr

I’ve been dissatisfied with my blog for weeks now.

During one of my long IM conversations (does anyone else have IM conversations any more?) with Saalon a couple weeks ago, I complained that blogs assume uniformity of content. That each entry will need to be formatted the same way.

I also dislike the constant draw of a blog, the siren song that says, “You should be posting every day.” That’s probably just an outcome of by my addiction to the internet.

(I don’t think I’m literally addicted to the internet, but I do spend hours of my time on the ‘net every day, which troubles me when I stop to think about it.)

In any event, my uniformity argument is complete hogwash. (By the way, what is hogwash?) It’s nearly trivial to re-format different blog posts for different needs, to give a recipe a brown background with white text set in Bookman Old Style.

What I really was rebelling against was a completely linear blog, a simple chronological list of entries (plus categories, but that’s a vestigial organizational organ). As clean and simple as that structure is, my many, varied brain dumps need more than one axis of organization.

This implies an interface, and aye, there’s the rub. For a couple of weeks I’ve hacked away at a completely different, monthly blog with extremely tight, specialized design unique to each article. Unfortunately, that turned out to be an insurmountable amount of work, especially if I wanted to integrate comments and RSS.

So. If I want to organize my posts and display them the way I want to, I’ll need a highly customized WordPress theme. Which I’ll build myself, since I don’t want to spend money on something I can learn to do.

So, I’ll be changing this website as I learn. Hopefully, it’ll be able to handle a wider variety of content, in a way that is appropriate to each type of content.

Why am I going through all this effort? Because I want a really cool website.

I don’t suppose there needs to be a better reason, does there?

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The iPad, Revisited

Jul 20 2010 Published by under Technology

iPadWhen the iPad was first released, early adopters rushed to post their initial impressions.

Now that I’ve been using an iPad for a few months, I think it’s important to come back and provide some more experienced impressions.

Here are the apps I use:

  • Daily
    • WSJ (Wall Street Journal). I even bought the subscription, so I don’t have to lug my Kindle around with me.
    • GoodReader, a fantastic PDF viewer that can wirelessly transfer PDFs from my laptop with no extra software.
    • EverNote, a note-taking app that backs up all content to internet servers. This is the centerpiece of my Getting Things Done implementation.
  • A few times a week
    • TweetDeck, a Twitter client
    • Kindle
    • xkcd, an online comic with a solid app
    • FeedlerRSS, a front-end for Google Reader, in which I read all the blogs I’ve subscribed to
    • WeatherBug, a slick weather app
    • Safari
  • Occasionally
    • X-Comics, a comic book reader and store, which sells single issues of comics for US $1 to $2.
    • Mail

don’t use the iPod functionality. That’s what my iPod is for, and I don’t want to fill the iPad with music when I could use that storage space for apps and data.

The iPad has replaced my Kindle. I still love the Kindle, but the iPad replaces all of its functions for day-to-day use. I’d prefer a Kindle in other situations, like travel (the Kindle has a longer battery life and its cellphone modem for downloading books costs nothing, depending on where in the world you are).

I encountered the dreaded “Re-enter your password” bug, in which the iPad would periodically lose its wireless internet connection and forget the password. I tried a number of different solutions, to no effect. I ended up removing password protection on my wireless network to solve it.

Nevertheless, I still use my iPad every day. After the first few weeks, my usage dropped drastically, and I barely picked it up for about a month. I then got back into it, especially when I started using GoodReader and the WSJ app. The iPad has turned into a practical device for me.

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Updating your WordPress Blog from WP 2.x to 3.0

Jun 18 2010 Published by under Technology

"Stairs" by moyogo on Flickr

"Stairs" by moyogo on Flickr

I’ve successfully migrated two WordPress 2.9 blogs to WordPress 3.0.  No issues.  Here are steps to follow to do so safely:

Phase 1: Backup

  1. Click on Tools > Export.  The “Export” page is displayed.
  2. Click the Download Export File button.  A “Save as” dialog is displayed.  Save the file on your desktop.
  3. Click on Dashboard.  Note the version of WordPress that you are running.  The version number is near the bottom of the “Right Now” box.

Note that this will not backup plugins or themes.  For a more complete backup, also FTP to your webhost and download everything in your blog’s folder.

Phase 2: Upgrade

  1. Click the Please update now link that’s at the top of all your WordPress admin pages.  Alternatively, go to your dashboard, and click the Update to 3.0 button that’s displayed in the “Right Now” box.  The “Upgrade WordPress” page is displayed.
  2. Click the Upgrade Automatically button.
  3. Wait a few moments, until the text “Upgrade completed successfully” is displayed on the page.

You’re done!  Click around to make sure everything works okay.  View your blog to ensure that it still displays properly.

Phase 3: If Everything Goes Pear-Shaped

If your blog is somehow borked as a result of this:

  1. Re-install a 2.x version of WordPress.
  2. Log in to your blog.
  3. Click Tools > Import.  The “Import” page is displayed.
  4. Click the WordPress item near the bottom of the “Import” page.
  5. Click the Browse… button.  An “Open” dialog is displayed.  Select the file that you saved in phase 1, and click the Open button.  The “Open” dialog disappears.
  6. Click the Upload file and import button.  All the content in the backup file should be imported back into your blog.

If you followed the FTP step in phase 1, navigate to the files you downloaded, and copy everything in the plugins/ folder to the plugins/ folder in your WordPress installation.  Do the same thing with your themes/ folder.

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May 27 2010 Published by under Technology

Context: I built a vintage video arcade cabinet about two years ago. It ran Ubuntu Linux and the MAME arcade emulator on an old off-the-shelf PC I had laying around.  About six months ago, that PC died. To be fair, it was at least a decade old.  I bought a new PC and set it up with Windows XP.

Using Windows presented several challenges, the primary one being Windows’ relative inflexibility. For example, under Linux, I had a soundtrack of classic arcade sounds running whenever the machine was on. I could configure Linux to automatically pause the soundtrack when the screen saver came on, and play when returning from the screen saver, so I wasn’t driven crazy by a 24-hour video arcade.  That’s not so simple under Windows.

Windows does have the advantage of ubiquitous support, so I could be more ambitious in other ways.

My arcade cabinet now runs about four hundred arcade, Sega Genesis, NES, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, ColecoVision, and SCUMM (LucasArts PC) games.  It’s all controlled from one customized interface, which lets me switch between any system.

The Emulators

MameWah is a generic, customizable front-end for any emulator application. It completely takes over the screen, and presents no standard GUI widgets.  It can be controlled using any keyboard keys you designate, and you can put in your own background images, logos, etc.

I’ve installed the following game system emulators:

  • Arcade games — MAME (standard Windows client)
  • Sega Genesis — wgens
  • NES fceux
  • Super Nintendo — zsnes
  • Nintendo 64 — Project64
  • ColecoVision — mess
  • SCUMM ScummVM

MameWah is configured using INI files; you create a new folder for each emulator within mamewah’s config folder, and drop a set of default INI files into that folder.  MameWah scans its config folder upon startup and sets itself up using the INI files in there.

The Games

The games themselves are stored as ROM files.  There are two main approaches to building one’s ROM collection:

  1. Hunt down and install just the games you want.
  2. Download a big archive of several hundred games, then find any games you want that aren’t included.  The internet being what it is, you can download collections of just about every game ever released for a system.  The disadvantages here are clutter (scrolling through lots of games you don’t want to play) and quality (some of the ROMs may be old versions, corrupted, etc.).

Galaga (c) Midway

For the systems  I’m not familiar with (like the N64), I followed the latter route; I just grabbed a huge collection of games.  For the others, I consulted “best of” lists, and downloaded ROMs for the games on those lists.  Of course, I also made sure to get any games I wanted (my number one most important arcade game is Galaga).

To find ROMs, use Google. I ain’t linking to them here.  Besides, ROM sites appear and disappear like gnomes.

The Setup

I installed each of the emulators in C:\Program Files, and all of the ROMs are in C:\ROMs\[console] (so I have C:\ROMs\NES, C:\ROMS\Genesis, etc.).  I’ve also got all the original installation packages for each emulator in My Documents.

I need to back this all up, and to do so I’m going to back up each of the emulators application folders, as well as the installation packages, and the entire contents of C:\ROMs.

If I were to set it up again, I’d create an emulators folder in C:\Program Files and install each emulator within that folder, for easier backups. In fact, I may still do that before I do the backup.

To restore, I’ll restore C:\ROMs, re-install each application, then copy the backed-up application folder on top of the new installation (thus restoring all the settings stored within it).

The Hardware

This is unchanged from before: A hand-made black cabinet, with a platform holding an X-Arcade controller and trackball. The PC is a $200 desktop device, hooked up to the X-Arcade, trackball, basic speakers (mounted inside the cabinet behind several drilled holes), and a 21″ CRT screen that I got for free through Freecycle.

The Conclusion

It took me quite a few hours to get all this working. It was fun, and tiring, and occasionally frustrating. I’m very happy with it.

If you  have any questions, feel free to post in the comments.

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Everybody Wave!

May 25 2010 Published by under Technology

Last week, the Google Wave team announced that Wave is now open to everyone. It’s out of beta. Just head over to and sign in.

Google Wave screenshot

This is a good time to go over what Wave is and how I’ve been using it.

What Wave Is

Wave is a collaborative communication platform. The creators started by wondering, “What would email look like if it were created today?”

So it’s a way to communicate directly with people. You go to a website, create a conversation (a Wave), and add contacts who can see it.  The first message (blip) is automatically created. You can start typing in it, and your name, profile picture, etc. are displayed next to it.

Anyone included on the conversation can add their own blip(s), anywhere in the conversation (even into the middle of another person’s blip).  Indeed, anyone included in the Wave can edit others’ blips (and then are listed as co-authors of that blip).

Moreover, every modification to every conversation is saved, so you can “rewind” the entire conversation to any point in time.

There’s a simple but effective permission model–you can add someone and only allow them to read the conversation, for example, and you can make conversations editable by the public (or only readable by the public, or keep it completely private).

The main web-based interface to Wave shows three columns:  folders and contacts, your inbox (or the contents of a folder, if selected), and the Wave you’re currently reading.

RPG-Bones Wave extension screenshot

RPG-Bones extension

There are also a number of extensions built by Google and independent developers, which provide all sorts of useful functionality, such as a voting widget, a mapping widget, etc.  Of course, you can also attach images and files to Waves.

More importantly, this is all simple. Everything I described here can be accomplished in a click or two.  It all just works.

What I Use It For

Primarily, I run three tabletop-style RPGs on Google Wave: two Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition games (The Legacy of the Lines and Sellswords of Tamerane) and a Star Wars: Saga Edition game (Portents of Darkness).

Here’s how I break down the Waves for each game:

  • An Index Wave, with links to all major Waves
  • A Character Wave, listing all the characters, stats, etc.
  • A Party Purse, describing all the items that the group’s carrying individually and collectively
  • A Background, describing the setup and world details
  • A Wave for each scene
  • An OOC Wave for each scene, for out-of-character chat

Once a scene comes to a reasonable stopping point — after 100–200 blips — I start a new scene.

For dice rolling, I use Random Lee Twenty, which looks for standard dice notation like “2d6+5”, calculates the result, and adds it next to the die roll (so “2d6+5” becomes “2d6+5: 11“).  For combat maps, I use the RPG-Bones extension, as that allows me to overlay a grid, add arbitrary images, zoom, etc.

It works extremely well.  I’m able to run three games simultaneously, which I check in the morning, at lunch, and in the afternoon/evening.  Each normally takes at most 10 minutes to update.

I’ve also used Wave for collaborative document review.  I or a friend create a Wave and type (or paste) some ideas.  We then add others, who add new blips in discussion, or directly fix things.  It works great.

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Why I started using LinkedIn again

May 12 2010 Published by under Technology

LinkedIn logoIn Fortune article published in March, a representative of management consulting firm Accenture revealed that he expects up to 20,000 of Accenture’s new hires this year to come from social media.


And knowing the social media landscape, when it comes to professionals using social media, you know that this doesn’t mean hiring through Facebook. The vast majority of those will come through LinkedIn, since that’s by far the most popular professional-oriented social media site.

While I created an outpost on LinkedIn years ago, I haven’t looked at it since. In light of this news, I returned to the site, and made some interesting discoveries:

  • Most of the people I’ve ever worked with are now on LinkedIn.
  • When a contact updates her profile, I’m notified, which gives me the opportunity to talk with her about the change. This is a nigh-perfect conversation starter; who wouldn’t want a message of congratulations or sympathy when their professional life changes?
  • I know a number of people who weren’t on LinkedIn, and I invited to join. Quite a few of them joined; more than I expected.  People seem to increasingly realize LinkedIn’s utility.
  • I’ve already been able to connect a contact looking for work with someone else interested. This is only a few weeks in.
  • People actually discuss topics, maturely and reasonably.
  • There are groups for about every conceivable topic.
  • Groups are plagued by spam. I don’t know why, but for every group I’ve joined, at least half of the discussion topics are individuals advertising their services (“Guaranteed marketing success for your business!”). They don’t appear to be scams, exactly; instead, they’re mildly related advertisements. I’m surprised that group moderators don’t control this.

Overall, I’m glad I’m back.

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Well That Was Easy

Apr 09 2010 Published by under Technology

Phantasy Star II screenshotAs mentioned in my previous entry, I downloaded the iPad/iPhone SDK Thursday night, and played around with it.

I now have a simple text adventure for the iPad, complete with four rooms and an inventory. In less than 24 hours.

I struggled with a few things. One has to go through several steps to wire up a UI element like a button or text view. Each module and model has its own role to play, and their interactions often confused me. Often, a button simply wouldn’t respond to system events, because I hadn’t done all of that wiring.

But I was able to get a simple game up and running in a couple of hours. Apple’s got some impressive tools and documentation.

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Wet Toes

Apr 08 2010 Published by under Technology

"DSCF3811" by Walter-Wilhelm on FlickrIn a fit of curiosity and a desire to seriously research a new field of programming, tonight I downloaded the iPad SDK and built a trivial iPad app.

As expected, Apple made development relatively easy. The free development tools are comprehensive and easy to use. Also as expected, I’m still confused by all the files that go into an app. There are nibs, and Resources, and all sorts of things that simply don’t have obvious functions.

I decided to read Apple’s development guide carefully. As a coder, I’ve developed the habit of skimming the documentation, which makes sense most of the time; during normal development, I’m looking for that one fact or code snippet that will solve my current problem. But for a new field, and just generally for my benefit, I’m drinking slowly and deeply this time.

The guide is clear, concise, and helpful. It’s not quite up to the standard set by Be’s API documentation, but nothing else since has been. A close reading of Apple’s guide told me the vast majority of what I needed to know to move forward.

So, my first app displays a logo screen, then two colored boxes. That’s it. I plan to expand it into a simple text adventure, which looks achievable at this point.

Realistically, I think the major hurdle will be learning Objective-C, which still feels like an awkward, uncouth dialect to my programming fingers. But hey, if I can learn LISP and assembly, I can learn Objective-C, right?

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15 Thoughts on the iPad (updated)

Apr 06 2010 Published by under Technology

The iPadA dry description of the iPad’s actual features and usability will not sell anyone who doesn’t want one.

Nevertheless, here’s a list of my impressions:

  • It’s slick. This is what Apple can do: make something we’ve all seen demos of feel not only practical, but sexy.
  • Every basic part of the device works well, and the hardware feels more solid than the iPhone’s. The accelerometer feels more sensitive and the screen crisper than an iPhone.
  • The apps work as advertised.
  • Typing is easy. Not awkward at all.
  • The screen can get smudged easily, but really, there are worse burdens to bear in this life.
  • It doesn’t feel heavy to me, considering the fact that it’s basically a laptop screen.  Some Kindle users complain that it’s heavier than a Kindle 2, and that’s certainly true; I wouldn’t want to hold this upright with one hand for hours.  But that’s fine; it is basically a laptop screen.  It’s not going to be light.
  • Games normally hold little attraction for me anymore, but with the iPad I’ve gotten back into gaming a bit. I’ve logged several hours on Warpgate HD, a Privateer-like space trading and combat game. The Pac-Man emulator works perfectly. Mirror’s Edge is a disappointment (they turned it into a side-scroller), and FPS’s are just too hard to control.
  • The Kindle app looks gorgeous. Works flawlessly, too.
  • I still prefer my Kindle DX for reading. The solid state screen on the Kindle is much easier on the eyes for long periods.
  • I’ve been using Evernote for my Getting Things Done to-do lists. Works fine so far. Great having my lists on an ultraportable device, and the ability to easily add, change, and remove items is an advantage over paper.
  • There’s an app called Comics, which lets you read American comics. Wow. I read through the first issue of a Warren Ellis-written Iron Man story, and…well, for US $2 I could download and read an issue of Iron Man. Tremendously valuable. You can double-tap on a panel to zoom in on it, too.
  • I watched the first few minutes of The Big Sleep using the NetFlix app (which also lets you manage your queues as effectively as on their website). I like the idea of being able to watch TV shows and movies on the iPad, though I don’t know why I’d do so there instead of on my larger laptop or projector.
  • You can load any iPhone or iPod Touch app on the iPad, which can be doubled in size to take up the full iPad screen real estate. This looks acceptable for most apps, but for games, the effect is cartoony and pixellated.
  • An option in iTunes will automatically down-sample all MP3s to 128 mbps when transferring to the iPad. I went from about 28 GBs of music (which is just a subset of my collection) to about 8 that way; I think I can put all my music on the iPad.
    • For you non-techies, let me translate: 128 kbps is a relatively high quality rating, but many songs files are generated at an even higher quality.  There’s a checkbox in iTunes that, when checked, will convert any songs higher in quality than 128 kbps to 128 kbps before transferring them to the iPad.  This can save tremendous amounts of storage space.
  • The lack of Flash is something of a relief. I get fewer annoying, interactive banner ads. The video sites that I care about (YouTube, Vimeo) already support HTML 5 video, and I hope that will be the future of online video anyway.

Overall: Do I like it? Yes. Is it worth the money? That’s an individual decision. It’s worth my money, if just because I get to hold a bit of the future in my hands.

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