PlayStation Home

One of the features of the PlayStation 3 has been the Home "game". I use game in quotes because it isn't really a game, per se, but a virtual environment where PS3 owners can mingle, see previews for game, movies, and accessories, as well as socialize with their brethren. If you have ever heard of SecondLife, PlayStation Home is a much scaled down version of that.

I've spent a few hours dabbling in Home. It's certainly an interesting idea: provide a 3D virtual environment that recreates a campus atmosphere and let players use it however they like. Unfortunately, it isn't a new idea, and it has rarely worked in other scenarios. Remember VRML? It was supposed to be the next big thing in web interfaces back at the turn of the millennium, allowing users to mingle at a 3D website together. Or more recently, how about Google Lively? Never heard of it eh? It was another attempt at 3D virtual social environments that just never had legs. Second Life has succeeded by filling a particular niche well. That niche being the ability for someone to anonymously fulfill whatever bizarre kink they like to indulge (furries much?) Oh, and some folks manage to make a living at it, but mostly it is about sex.

PS Home doesn't have that aim. Worse, it doesn't have any aim. After spending several hours listlessly wandering the sterile environments (a personal apartment, campus plaza, bowling alley, mall, and theater) I found absolutely nothing compelling to do. The few games that are available feel half-baked, and aside from Echochrome, there is no reason to play them (playing Echochrome wins you a new outfit). Like SecondLife, there are shops where you can use real money to purchase upgrades for your avatar, such as new clothes or furniture for your apartment. Unlike SecondLife, there is no way to earn that money, or to get the virtual items without spending cash. As such, it feels like a shallow attempt to nickel and dime the players ($7 for a santa outfit you have to buy a piece at a time!!!)

Let me take a step back and describe my first experiences. The night that the beta was opened to the general public, I logged on around 11 in the evening to see what the fuss was about. After a few minutes dressing up my avatar with the paltry set of clothing and shaping selections (the Wii has this totally beat for being able to create a recognizable representation of your likeness) I was delivered to my apartment. A sterile, empty place with a seaside view, and all the furniture facing the wall. I'll leave out the bits about the application crashing (it did, a lot). After familiarizing myself with the controls, I stepped downloaded the rest of the environments and stepped out in the plaza. Here I was met with probably hundreds of other likeminded curious gawkers. Most were milling about, wandering from place to place to see what Home had to offer. The bowling alley was chock full of folks waiting in line to play the games that were available at the lanes and in the arcade. This post and comic from Penny-Arcade sum up that experience pretty well. The Mall environment had a few stores, but I wasn't about to start spending 50 cents to $2 for the privilege of "personalizing" my avatar or apartment.

Twenty minutes later I had seen everything in home, and was unimpressed. I went to the plaza again to see if I could find any interesting conversation going. That's when I noticed that the demographic of the plaza was 99% male. The one poor female avatar had a crowd of 20 or so other avatars dogging her around from place to place, kicking on dance moves whenever she would stop. Of course, this quickly led to the act of gender-bending pranks now known as pulling a Quincy. When I did find a group of folks with a conversation going on, I found it really hard to participate. I have a bluetooth headset, but only a few others were using voice chat. Most were text chatting, but doing so with just a controller was very difficult. By the time I had entered my comment, the subject of my comment was already off the page and so I came off as non-sequitur. Annoyed at this and the over-all feeling of meh, I gave up and just played a game.

A couple of weeks later now, and I have a new PS3 Wireless Chatpad to assist me in communicating, so I decided to give Home a second look. There was a new update, and I notice that one of the changes is that voice chat has now been turned off for all but private zones (your apartment, premium gaming clubs). On entering the plaza I see not the hundreds of avatars from before, but possibly ten. The demographic is now closer to 60/40 male/female, but I'm fairly certain that most of the "girls" are just boys waiting to pull a crying game prank. A new movie is playing at the theater. I picked up with a small group in the plaza that was just having a amicable chat. Participating with the chat pad was much better than the joystick entry I was using before, and I was actually able to be a part of the conversation. This was certainly a viable way to pass the time and potentially meet other players with similar interests. One frustration in chatting was the draconian word filter. A lot of words are banned from use, and result in a your text appearing as **** where the banned word would be. Unfortunately, there is no contextual help. Even if that banned word appeared as part of another word, it got the star treatment. So Hello became ****o and Christmas became *****mas. It frequently broke up the flow of conversation as we tried to figure out what the speaker meant (and the speaker gets no indication that their word was filtered either). Worse, there is no way to disable this feature. A second frustration is that the ability to add a new friend to your friend roster is not part of the interface. The whole point of Home (in my mind) is to meet with other folks and find new friends to play with, yet Home doesn't facility either adding friends nor launching games. It's a major oversight in functionality.

I can't say that I'm disappointed in Home. It is a free application, and I'm free to not use it. I can't say I'm surprised by what I found in home, as it was about what I expected from my experiences in Lively and SecondLife. I am a little surprised at how much effort Sony is putting into this environment though. If they want it to be a success, they need to make it integrated with friend making and game launching. Above that, they need to find a hook to make spending time in Home worthwhile, and not just another empty virtual environment.

Fields vs. Properties

One element of C# that is very useful is the Property member.  Back in the days of C you would declare a struct and the members of that struct (the fields) were all public.  When C++ came along it gave use the concept of hiding our fields behind accessor methods, namely getters and setters.  Java continued this design.  C# introduces a new member type called the property, which makes managing your field getters and setters a little bit easier.  So where you might have Java code like:

public class MyClass
  private int myValue;

  public int getMyValue() { return myvalue; }
  public void setMyValue(int value) { myValue = value; }

Your C# code might look like this:

public class MyClass
  private int myValue;
  public int MyValue
    get { return myValue; }
    set { myValue = value; }

It's a subtle difference, but the IDE and language pickup on that syntax and make organizing your "function" methods seperately from your "attribute" methods much easier.  In fact, the latest version of the .NET framework includes a handy syntax feature called auto-properties which let you condense that declaration to:

public class MyClass
  public int MyValue { get; set; }

Here the private variable is auto-generated by the compiler.  The advantage to providing getters and setters, regardless of your language choice, is that you can later create a derived class that provides additional actions based on the setting or getting of the attribute.  So you might have:

public class MyClassWithSmallValues : MyClass
  public override int MyValue
    get { return base.MyValue; }
      if ( value > 10 || value
        throw new ArgumentException();
      base.MyValue = value;

That example is pretty contrived, but you get the idea.

So where does that leave our old friend the public field?  It is still legal syntax to declar a public variable on your class, i.e.

public class MyClass
  public int MyValue;

At the base class level, this class would behave identically to either the Java or C# implementation above, and it saves you a bit of coding.  So why is this considered "bad practice"?  Well, as mentioned above, you are now trapped with that attribute on your class.  No matter how many levels of derivation you go, you will always have a MyValue and you have no way of reacting to request or change to that variable.  Still, there are times when this construct can be useful.  If it were bad in all cases the language maintainers would simply strip it out.  Here is a case where I find the public field to still be useful:

public class MyClass
  public readonly byte[] MyByteArray = new byte[4];

The goal in this implementation is to provide a class that has an array of bytes that is exactly 4 bytes long.  It can never be less, it can never be more.  Each element in the array always has a legal value for a byte.  The readonly keyword above is to instruct the C# compiler that this value can only be set once, and only at the time the class is created.  It can never be written to again, but it can be read.  A user of the class could change the values at each index of the array, but they could never modify the array itself.

The net result is that you save yourself from creating a lot of error catching code.  You don't have to check for the array to be too short or too long, nor for the array being null.  The property is indexable right off an instance of the class, and that without needing to create your own Collection class (which was a bear until MS introduced generics in the framework).  

The one drawback I can see to this implementation is that certain framework components will inspect class properties, but do not perform reflection to find public fields.  So where a DataGridView will data bind to all of the properties in a class automatically, it completely ignores your public fields.  That's just as well, because I don't think that control behaves properly with arrays, but it is worth mentioning.

So to all of the OO programmers of the world: do you still have a use for the public field?  Or is this a concept that can be eliminated from modern compilers?

Google Calendar Sync

I am giving up my BlackBerry in at work and reverting back to the use of my PDA (thus the previous posts looking for a cell phone).  As part of this process, I've been looking into different ways of keeping sync'ed, both with my work items and home items.  I tried an open source product called GMobileSync from RareEdge.  On paper it had everything I wanted - it would pull appointments from my Google Calendar and put them on my PDA calendar, and would also push appointments on my PDA to my Google Calendar.  This would allow me to use my PDA as a single source for all of my home and office appointments (and would allow my wife to easily check my availability for doctor's appointments or schedule me as away for any family related things).  Unfortunately, the execution is quite there.  The code is at version 1.3.6, and while it will update my PDA with appointments from my GCal, it won't go the other way (NullReferenceError).  I considered grabbing the code and debugging it, but I'd rather have a solution that just works out of the box.

Enter Google Calendar Sync from Google.  This application runs on the desktop rather than on the PDA, but it does 2-way synchronization between your Outlook calendar and your Google Calendar.  This is perfect, because my PDA syncs with my Outlook calendar anyway.  Now all of my work appointments show up on my Google Calendar, and all of my personal appointments show up on my Outlook calendar.

Cell Phone Search - Continued

I got a couple of interesting suggestions on that last post.  The parameters of my search have modified slightly.  I have the following choices before me: 

  • Choose any phone I want, and any plan I want, but I have to pay for both
  • Choose any phone I want from Verizon and get voice only service, completely free to me
I know a lot of folks are passionately averse to Verizon due to their draconian tactics with regard to phone features.  They do have the best coverage though.  Free is definitely a good thing to me.  If I were to go the Verizon route, I think my choice would be between a Samsung Saga and a LG Decoy.  If I were to go outside Verizon, there are lots of interesting options.  Is it worth the cash outlay on my part though?

I think I'm leaning towards the free option.  Any reasons why I should change my mind?  Any suggestions on a particular Verizon phone model?

Mobile Phone

I'm in the market for a cell phone, and I need some recommendations.  Here are the base requirements:

  • Voice communication
Really, that's it.  At the base level I just need a phone that I can be called at or place calls from.  However, there are a lot of features I would love to have:
  • Personal E-mail support (gmail, yahoo, hotmail, etc.)
  • Work E-mail support (exchange-sync)
  • Instant Messaging support
  • Internet browsing
  • Full QWERTY keyboard
  • Candy-bar form factor (sliders are ok)
  • 802.11g/b support
Things I don't need:
  • SMS Texting
  • MMS Texting
  • Movies
  • Music 
  • Television
So of course the first thing that comes to mind is....iPhone!  The iPhone is a beautiful machine, but it is also very expensive.  Not only do you pay $200 for the phone with a contract, but you end up paying a very hefty monthly fee for voice and data.  I don't use my phone much now, and I'd like to keep the monthly fees to a minimum.  My wife is on a pay-as-you-go program and that works great.  A $20 card on that program will stretch out for a long time.  Finding a plan for $20 a month is nearly impossible too.  

One thought that I have rolling around in my head is to get a phone that can run Skype and then purchase a data only plan.  As an example, get a T-Mobile G1 (the Google phone) and their $40 per month unlimited data plan.  Then use Skype as my full time mobile number ($60 per year for unlimited calling).  That's still a little pricey, and also questionable about whether it would even work, but it definitely satisfies the geek in me.

The PEEK e-mail device really has my attention.  At $20 per month the price is very right, but that doesn't include voice.  Voice is definitely required, so another option would be to have two gadgets with me: a simple cell phone on a pay-as-you-go plan for voice, and a PEEK for e-mail access.  Then again, access to my personal e-mail isn't all that critical to me, and the PEEK doesn't offer any web browsing, instant messaging, or anything else compelling really that would make it a must have for me.

At the end of the day, what I'm probably going to need is just a simple, inexpensive cell phone that I can use on a pay as you go plan.  From my wife's experience I know you can put any phone on those plans, so that really opens the options.  I'd like to spend less than $100 on a phone.  Any suggestions or models out there that you like? Are there any inexpensive phones out there that have 802.11b/g support that aren't an iPhone?

TV Follow-Up

The television issue has a happy ending.  As a result of very good customer service on the behalf of both Samsung and HH Gregg, I have a replacement set in the basement now.  The day after my last post I plugged in the set and it wouldn't come on.  The power indicator was lit, but it never showed a picture.  I was at day 11 on the set, and HH Gregg policy says they don't do returns after 10 days, so I was afraid I was going to be stuck.  I called anyway and was thrilled that they would replace the set.  I put it in the back of the van and within two hours was back home with a new unit in back.  This was a much better solution, because once something breaks, even after repairs you'll always wonder how much longer it has.  The new set is working just fine.

I also received my second day delivery package from Samsung.  I was expecting just to get a CD with the firmware and it would be on me to transfer it to the television through a USB key.  Instead, it contained a 1GB USB key with the firmware already loaded!  So kudos to Samsung customer service for that!  

Even though I initially had trouble with the first set, I think this experience really validates my opinion of both Samsung and HH Gregg.  Samsung is a quality manufacturer with excellent customer service.  HH Gregg is staffed with knowledgable folks that go the extra mile for the customers.  They will both definitely be getting more of my business in the future.

TV Trouble

All is not well in the land of the new TV.  The first week I had the set, it gave me a scare.  After a few hours of playing Burnout Paradise on the PS3, the TV picture suddenly went black.  The set would seem like it was trying to power the picture back on, going from a dark black (off) to a powered on black (light black?).  It would make a short buzzing sound, then back to off again.  A few seconds later the cycle would repeat.  I let it do this for about a half an hour but the picture never came back.  I tried to turn the set off, but it wouldn't respond to either the remote or the power button on the front of the set.  In the end, I just had to unplug it.  After it was unplugged for about ten minutes, I plugged it back in and everything was working again.

I wasn't just going to ignore this problem, so I called Samsung technical support.  I let them know what happened, and that the set was running firmware version 1006.1.  The tech support agent recommended that I downgrade the firmware to 1005.3.  I did that, and for the next week I had no issues. 

Until last night.  Again, I had been playing Burnout Paradise for around an hour when the picture went black.  The same cycle of attempted power on, then off repeated.  Again, the only way to turn off the set was to unplug it from the wall.

So this morning I called Samsung tech support again and they are going to have a service agent out to take a look at the set sometime next week.  Frankly, I'd prefer if they would just swap my set for a new one so I don't get stuck with a questionable build, but I'm fairly certain that won't be their first course of action.  I haven't heard anything negative from my father-in-law who purchased the same set, so this is likely just a flaw in this particular set and not something wrong with the set design.  

Just for completeness of information, here is the setup:

Samsung HL61A750 61" LED DLP
HDMI Port 1 - Connected to AT&T U-Verse set top box (non-DVR).
HDMI Port 2 - Connected to PS3
A/V Port 1 - Connected to Xbox
A/V Port 2 - Connected to PS2
RF Port - Connected to "rabbit ear" antennae

Unit is plugged into a APC UPS on the power conditioning side (not that battery backup side).

When the unit experienced the issue, I tried holding the front power button to get it to power off.  I tried unplugging HDMI and A/V connections.  I tried using the Source button.  I tried using the power button on the remote.  The set did not react to any of these actions.

I'll follow-up later with whatever the Samsung tech finds out.  At least the set has some working time so I'm not completely out of enjoying it, but I definitely want to get this resolved long before the 1 year parts and labor warranty expires.

The Economic Crisis

My wife asked me a great question last night, "Are we really in an economic crisis, or are we only in trouble because the news is telling us we are in trouble?"  In other words, are all the layoffs, plant closings, and personal penny pinching going on around the country truly a reaction to the current economic condition, or are we just reacting to what we are seeing on the news (a self-fulfilling prophecy).  It is a little of both in my opinion, but you have to really look at what has happened to our economy to understand why I say that.

So what has happened?  In my understanding, there was a lot of bad debt out there, and it finally got called.  The ridiculous mortgage debt gets the lion's share of the blame because it was by far the most readily visible form of bad debt, but there was lots of other bad debt mixing around hidden in accounting books and financial forms not so readily recognizable to most folks.  What happened was that this bad debt that could never be recouped simply became too great.  Financial institutions were forced to realize that they were never going to be able to call those debts, so they had to write them off.  Unfortunately, there was often only a pittance of tangible assets to back those debts, if anything at all.  This means that when the financial institution wrote off the debt, they didn't have any collateral to recover.

Take the example of a home mortgage.  Let's say that the builder constructs a home and sells it for $100,000.  Let's say that this home is in an area with explosive growth.  The first owner then sells it to owner #2 for $200,000.  Owner #2 sells to owner #3 for $400,000.  Finally, owner #4 purchases the property for $1,000,000 by taking out a loan from his bank.  Owner #4 is not able to make a down payment, and elects to take on a interest only 2 year mortgage that will re-adjust to the current lending rate after two years and become a 30 year ARM.  On paper, owner #4 now has a tangible asset (the house) worth $1,000,000 and an outstanding loan of $1,000,000.  Let's say the interest rate was set at 6% so his monthly payment is $5,000.  Now, let's say owner #4 only makes $6,000 a month.  After a couple of months of being able to make his payments, he starts to fall behind.  After 6 months, he simply can't pay, so he stops paying his mortgage altogether.  The bank forecloses on the property and evicts the owner.  So now the bank has a (on paper) $1,000,000 property ready to sell in a hot market.  However, imagine that this happened for EVERY property in that neighborhood.  Or at least a majority of them.  Suddenly that $1,000,000 home isn't worth quite so much.  In fact, it may fall to the original builder price of $100,000.  This means that the bank is out $900,000.  Even worse, it is out that kind of money on every home loan that failed.  

The net result is that the lending institutions were incredibly cash short.  Without any money to spare, the lenders have to be very rigorous in determining who they will lend to, and have to increase rates in order to make any attempt to recover from this loss.  For some lenders, it is simply too much, and they fail altogether.  We saw this on a daily basis through much of the third quarter.  For others, they reach out for a government loan (that $700 billion dollars you've heard so much about) to keep them afloat long enough to start recovery.

Now comes stage 2.  The majority of businesses rely on some form of short term credit or debt to get by.  Whether it is a car salesman who needs short term debt to acquire inventory, or a small services firm that uses credit to fulfill paychecks, short term debt is a primary cog in the business machine.  With little money to lend, only the most reliable businesses are going to get the credit they need.  Those who don't are forced to make some hard decisions: fold the business, reduce costs (through layoffs), or find some other cost savings measures.  It's not a free ride for those businesses that do receive their credit either, as they get much less than they had hoped for.  The net result here is what you see in the news every day: massive layoffs and corporate bankruptcy.  

So what's next?  Stage three (again, my own interpretation here) is a drastic reduction in purchasing, both at a personal and corporate level.  Sales predictions for every business are heading south because there is very little money available to buy any more than the bare necessities to get by.  All of the workers that went through layoffs are cutting every corner they can to get by until the next job comes along.  Businesses aren't investing in new equipment until their own sales improve.  It's a nasty downward cycle.

And here is where I get back to my wife's question: does the financial crisis really impact us?  To some extent, yes.  My company is very profitable, and we look to remain profitable throughout these tough times due to the nature of our products.  However, we do recognize that sales are going to be significantly less, so we've made some prudent cost cuts to help insure our safety.  One of those cost cuts includes my not receiving a salary increase this year.  This across the board measure will help save the company millions, and will help us to avoid any layoffs.  So in that sense, yes, the economic crisis has affected us, but only by three degrees of seperation from the root cause.  On the other hand, I have no concerns about losing my job, nor of not receiving my paycheck.  Although the news talks every day about personal spending cuts, our house can continue to live as we always have.  Part of this is due to job and financial security, and part of that is due to the way we live.  We have always chosen a lifestyle that means living well within our means.  We don't carry balances on credit cards, nor do we regularly depend on short term debts / credit.  Our only debts are a car loan and mortgage, and we've made sure those are well within our budget to pay each month.  We also were prudent savers, with four months salary in our cash reserves as well as healthy 401K, Roth IRA, and 529 savings plans.  This may come off as a bit boastful, but it is because of our conservative behavior that, for the most part, this economic crisis will not have a significant impact on our lifestyle.  In fact, this may be a time where our lifestyle improves due to the increased buying power of our dollar.  

So in answer to that original question, yes, we as a nation and as a world are in a very difficult economic time.  At a macro level, the economic crisis is real and great number of people are going to be affected by it.  The only way out of it is to find a way to recover from the bad debts that started this mess, prevent it from happening again, and make good credit available to those who can pay it back.  At the micro level, assuming that there are no further bombs to drop, our family will feel very little affect from this economic crisis.

Samsung 61" 750 series DLP

I've had a few days now with the new television in the basement, and I have a few thoughts.  If you want to lookup the specifics yourself, the television is a Samsung HL61A750, which is the 61" DLP set in the 750 series.  I've gotten a lot of the same questions, so I'll try to answer them here.

Why a DLP and not an LCD or Plasma?
The choice between DLP, LCD, and Plasma is going to be different based on what you will be doing with your set.  For me, I knew this set would be used mostly for gaming and movie watching with a little television thrown in, and possibly connecting a PC.  Gaming and PC usage leads to having a static image on the screen for a long period of time.  A static image on the screen for extended periods can lead to burn in.  We can see this on our television upstairs, which will show the shadow of the Nickelodeon station mark in the lower right corner any time the set displays a solid color background.  Plasma displays are very susceptible to burn-in, so this type of television was out for me.  LCD screens can get burn in, but it is much less likely.  DLP sets do not burn in at all.  So DLP is a pretty good candidate.  I also didn't have any aspiration of mounting the television on a wall.  A DLP is a rear projection set, and is a little thicker than an LCD.  The HL61A750 is around 14" at the base, but the rear of the unit is angled such that it is only a couple of inches wide at the top.  Still, this prevents wall mounting, but that wasn't a concern for me.

The other big difference between these television types is price.  There are only two manufacturers that are making DLP sets anymore: Samsung and Mitsubishi.  If you are looking for a very large screen, this is your best buy for the dollar.  At 61", the DLP can be had for $1200 by a bargain shopper, while an equivalent size LCD will run at least 30% more.  Until recently a Plasma set was also price competitive at this size, but while the LCD and DLP costs have continually gone south, a plasma set has retained the same price of just over $2,000 for 60" or higher.  To highlight this, when I was pricing out the HL61A750, I also looked for an LCD from Samsung in the similar price and feature range.  The LN46A650 is a 46" model with equivalent features and a $1500 price tag.  So you would lose 15" of screen real estate.

The drawback to a DLP (as with any other projection set) is that off angle viewing is degraded.  If you are sitting at more than  45 degree angle off to the side of the set, or more than a 15 degree angle above or below the set, the picture washes out.  In our home, we have very direct viewing, so this is not an issue for us, but could be for others.

Why the 750 series?
Samsung breaks down their sets into series.  The lower the series number, the less features in the set.  In the DLP line you can get a 56" in the 550 or 650 series, or a 61" in the 650 or 750 series.  The 56" 550 series is below $1,000.  The difference between the 61" 650 and 750 series is about $200.  So why spend that money?  The big deal to me was the use of three LEDs in the light engine rather than a halogen bulb.  A DLP set requires a light source, and for most televisions the light source is a special bulb.  This bulb ages over time, and is often expressed in the technical specifications as a bulb life of X thousands of hours.  A typical bulb might have a 5,000 hour life, which is the number of hours the television is on before the bulb is at half the brightness when first used.  The 650 series uses a halogen bulb with a 10,000 hour life.  The 750 series uses three colored LEDs instead, which have a tremendous lifetime.  In addition, the LEDs are much more energy efficient than a halogen bulb.  I'll easily get back that $200 in the saved energy cost and avoiding any need to replace the bulb.

Any other thoughts?
The set is beautiful!  I hooked up the PS3 and the games are simply gorgeous.  I've watched bits of the Iron Man Blu-Ray and it looks good.  I have to admit, though, I was expecting more from a Blu-Ray film.  I think I've just gotten spoiled on the HD we get from AT&T.  The 1080i signal looks great.  I was hoping to get the same "Oh Wow!" sensation that I had when watching my first DVD and HD content.  It does look better, but only by a little.  I don't know that I would change out my existing DVD collection for Blu-Ray, but I might get a few select titles in that format (like Pixar films).  

The set really demonstrates how much impact the source of the video has.  The over-the-air high def tuning looks amazing on our local NBC affiliate.  That same signal from the AT&T service is a little degraded, but still quite good.  The ABC and CBS affiliates look about the same as the non-HD content.  The PS3 games look fantastic.

I've only encountered one bug with the set so far.  Last night, after around 3 hours of gaming on the set, the picture suddenly went out.  From time to time the screen would flicker between a projected black and off.  Meanwhile, the LED light on the front of the set would pulse on and off.  I read through the manual and it indicated that this happens when the lamps get too hot.  I read online that this can sometimes happen when the set really isn't that hot, and that firmware upgrades can solve it in most cases.  I left the set off for about five minutes, and then it came right back up without any problem.  Firmware upgrades are as easy as downloading the file to a USB drive and plugging it into the back of the set.

There is also a ethernet jack on the back of the set that I haven't connected yet.  This allows for scrolling news and weather across the screen anytime.

I'll keep playing with this thing and post back if I have any other useful information.

New TV

If you've been into any major electronics store lately, you probably couldn't pull yourself away from looking at the enormous, beautiful televisions on display.  With the economy in a slump the prices on these units have come way down.  For several years I've wanted to put a nice big HDTV in the basement, but finding the money for one amid all of our other needs just wasn't in the cards.

Lately, I've been eyeing two different models of Samsung television.  Last year the Samsung DLP sets caught my eye.  These are rear projection sets that support full HD (1080p) and have a beautiful picture.  Even though the set is rear projection, the footprint is relatively small.  Earlier this year we bought a LCD for our bedroom to replace an aging set, and at the time we ordered the 56" Samsung 650 series DLP.  The bill rang up to a little over $2,000 and I immediately had buyer's remorse.  The next day I cancelled the order without ever picking up the set.  The other model I like is the 52" Samsung LCD in the 6 series.  This is the "Touch of Color" model that has a red bezel.  We got to see one over the Thanksgiving holiday as my wife's uncle had purchased one.  It is a beautiful television, and he had it nicely mounted on the wall.  He got it at a price of around $1,600, which got me to thinking about televisions again.

So I kept my eye on the TV ads to see if Black Friday would bring any stellar deals.  Unfortunately, most big box vendors were discounting only the in-house brands, and the Samsung's were keeping their price steady.  That is, until I happened to browse Amazon for their price on the DLP sets.  Amazon had the 61" DLP 7 series set for $1497!  I mocked up an order and saw that shipping was free, no state sales tax, and they were offering 24 months same as cash.  That is one heck of a deal.  Still, buying something major like that over the internet gives me a little worry.  What if it breaks or needs service?

In these cases I really like to head to HH Gregg.  They have their headquarters close by, and I've always found their staff to be top notch.  I went to the store armed with my Amazon details and was amazed to find that they would be willing to match the Amazon offer!  The salesman set the price of the HL61A750 at $1400, which meant my price after tax was $1498.  I was picking up the unit so there was no delivery charge.  In addition, if I should have any trouble with the unit I know I can bring it back to the store locally for service.

I was still high on this experience later that day when we visited my father-in-law for his birthday.  My wife's folks have a 15 year old rear projector that was on it's way out.  I told him about the deal and we got him the same set at the same price.  

This television is gorgeous.  I'll write another post to give the ins and outs, but I definitely have no buyer's remorse this time around.  I know the economy is rough, but if you've been prudent with your income and have been looking for the right time to buy a television, this may be it.

Vista Frustration

Vista is a well beaten dead horse.  Microsoft is embarassed of it, and is rushing to get Windows 7 out the door in the hopes that the world will forget Vista ever happened.  In the meantime, the world is largely ignoring Vista and staunchly sticking to their XP installations.  Personally, I've installed Vista on my work laptop and on my home PC, while leaving the PCs that my wife and kids use on XP.  

For the typical home user there is no compelling reason to upgrade to Vista.  There is nothing that Vista offers you that you aren't already getting from your Windows XP machine.  If you are one of those hold-outs hanging on to your Windows 95/98/Me edition could get a lot of of XP, but don't go all the way to Vista yet.

One feature that I have grown to like in Vista is the universal search on the Start button.  Hit your Windows key and you can start typing.  Type the name of the application you want to run, and it hunts down the shortcut.  Type the name of the document you want and it lists all matching files.  Type in a URL and it gives you a link to that website.  It is really handy, and I find myself missing it when I move back to an XP box.  Aside from that, the Aero interface is pretty but adds no tangible value.  You would be hard pressed to name any other Vista improvements that would compel you to switch.

What you will find are a bunch of frustrations though.  First, most of your older hardware just flat won't work.  Have a printer that is more than a couple of years old?  Won't work.  How about that scanner you've had for three years?  Nope, that won't work either.  Webcam?  No.  Grrr..  Vista will also gladly gobble up any extra memory you have around.  Remember two years ago when the whole Vista Capable effort started?  At the time, Vista was just on the horizon and PC manufacturers were selling units with the Vista Capable sticker to let you know that it would run Vista perfectly well.  Not so much.  These machines, outfitted with modest graphics cards and 1GB of memory or less, were horrible Vista platforms.  Vista gladly gobbled up that 1GB of memory for itself and then asked hungrily for me, denying the applications that you wanted to run any memory for themselves.  It consumed the majority of your hard disk, and it busied your graphics cards with moronic things to do like rendering the desktop in 3D, or animating your wallpaper.

On top of those intentional frustrations, there are also a number of unintended frustrations.  For one, you may notice that after time the Network, Sound, and Battery indicator icons in your system tray fall of the end never to be seen again.  For reasons unknown, Vista will occassionally reset the preference to display these, forcing you to find the arcane place where you can ask to have them displayed again.

One frustration I recently dealt with had to do with my CD drive and iTunes.  When iTunes installs, it installs a custom CD driver to assist in burning discs.  Unfortunately, this driver is exactly comfortable running on Vista x64.  Recent revisions of iTunes are much better, but the hangup is that if you ever decide to uninstall iTunes, your CDROM is going away with it.  You see, the custom driver doesn't uninstall properly along with iTunes, and it leaves Vista thinking that the drive is broken.  You have to perform a registry hack to get it back (documented here).

So here's some friendly advice from a geek.  If you have never owned a PC before, and you have no existing equipment that you want to run on a new PC, go ahead and purchase a PC with Vista installed.  Most PC's today with Vista installed have the necessary memory and graphics to get the job done, and you won't experience the pain of trying to get all of your old stuff to work.  If, however, you've been using a PC for more than 2 years, don't bother with Vista.  If you absolutely must buy a new PC, ask for it to be downgraded to XP, or see if you can get a refund for Vista and use the money to buy a copy of XP.  You'll save yourself a ton of frustration, and won't be missing anything.

Prepping for Winter

Burnout Paradise

A buddy of mine at work was generous enough to loan me a bunch of PS3 games.  He is knee deep into the Wrath expansion for WoW, and so he said he wouldn't miss them for a while.  Initially I set them aside as I really wanted to get to 100% treasure collection on LittleBigPlanet, but now that I have achieved that goal, I was ready for something new.  

The first game we pulled out of the stack was Sonic the Hedgehog.  Now, I loved Sonic on my old Genesis, so I had some expectations going in.  Ooooh, was I disappointed.  Gone are the 2D platforming levels with insane speed (thank you blast processor!).  Today's game is filled with 3D platforming at it's worst.  Every conceivable issue that could afflict a 3D platformer is here: unclear objectives, horrible character control, uncooperative camera system, and outright bugginess.  If you get this game in your stocking this holiday season, don't even bother to unwrap it.  Just take it to your nearest games dealer and hope they give you $5 on trade-in for it.

So I set that one aside and picked up the next on on the stack: Burnout Paradise.  If you've played any of the Burnout series of driving games, you know that the series is far from a pure racing sim.  In Burnout, crashing your car in the most spectacular way possible is part of the fun.  First, let me say that this game is gorgeous!  The vehicles, the environments, and the wrecks are just amazing.  This is what next gen console play is all about (sorry Wii, I love you man, but this is not your forte).  The gameplay itself is a lot of fun too.  The game is set in an open environment that is Paradise City (cue G'n'R).  You can simply cruise around in your vehicle enjoying the environment at your leisure, or you can pull up to any stop light and hit the gas and brake to start an event.  The events are one-on-one race, group race, stunt run, marked man, road rage, and burning route.  The first two are typical racing fare.  Marked man and road rage are variations on a smash up derby.  In marked man you are the target, and your goal is to get to your destination in one piece while your opponents attempt to destroy your vehicle.  In road rage, it's a roadway free for all with the objective to destroy a target number of opponents.  The burning route is a special timed race that, if you win, you get a new version of your vehicle.

This game is a lot of fun, but it can be a little daunting to first jump in.  With so much city to explore it is easy to get lost during a race.  There are lots of times that I'll manage to get the lead only to see the pack peel off to a side street while I barrel down the road heading the wrong direction.  

Burnout Paradise supports Trophies, so if you are a trophy hound this is another opportunity to get your fix.  The PS3 is my first experience with a trophy system and I'm finding that I really enjoy it.  It's giving the games a lot of replay value as I try to attain the more difficult goals.  It's also fun to compare my trophy collection with other folks on PSN just to see how I rank against other folks.

I noticed that Burnout Paradise is now available as a download on the PSN Store for $30.  If you own a PS3 and enjoy driving games, $30 is an easy investment for this kind of fun.

BeginRead Weirdness

I've run into a bit of an interesting problem with some code I'm working on.  It deals with asynchronous reads on a stream.  Here is a simplified version of the problem:

I have a network device that communicates by a TCP socket.  The client software connects to that TCP socket and issues commands.  Every command should receive a response from the device.  A new command must not be sent until the response to the last command was received.

So initially I wrote some code that looked like this:

public class Reader
private readonly Stream inStream;

public Reader( Stream in )
inStream = in;

public byte[] ReadResponse()
byte[] buffer = new byte[256]; 
inStream.Read(buffer, 0, buffer.Length);
return buffer;

This code worked just long as the device responded to my command.  Sometimes, the device wouldn't respond.  This might be because the device was unplugged before the response was sent (in which case my Read attempt would eventually return indicating the end of the stream was reached) or the device simply failed to respond to the command.

So now what I wanted was a way to deal with the device simply not responding to a command.  I needed some mechanism that would allow me to block on the read for only a little while.  A perfect place to use the asynchronous read!  So I modified my code to this:

public byte[] ReadResponse()
byte[] buffer = new byte[256]; 
IAsyncResult waitHandle 
= inStream.BeginRead(
bool waitResult 
= waitHandle.AsyncWaitHandle.WaitOne(
return buffer;

This change will read back the response if one is returned, or stop blocking after 5 seconds elapses without a response.  This works as I expected - the WaitOne returns as soon as data is available, or after the timeout period.  If the waitResult indicates that the timeout occurred, I can send my next command.  Here is where the weirdness is: the BeginRead attempting to read the response to the first command now reads the response to the second command!  This results in my latest command never receiving a response. 

So my question is, how can I block on a read for a specified period of time and avoid consuming the next byte arriving on the stream if the timeout occurs?  

I've tried a couple of things, and I have a working solution, but I'm not satisfied with it.  My current solution is to use a NetworkStream rather than a base Stream.  I would prefer to use the basic Stream type as it allows me to apply this reader to any Stream source and not just NetworkStream sources.  The NetworkStream has a DataAvailable property that returns true when data is available to be read on the stream.  I poll the DataAvailable property until data arrives or my 5 second timeout occurs.  This avoids the erroneously consumed byte.  However, in addition to the reliance on a NetworkStream source, it also introduces inefficiency as I poll the DataAvailable property.  I can either cause the CPU to spike by continuously polling the property, or I can introduce a Sleep.  The Sleep will allow the CPU usage to remain low, but also means that if the data becomes available while the thread is sleeping, I'm wasting time that could be spent processing the data.

What I really need is a way to cancel the thread that is waiting for the response asynchronously.  Unfortunately, the .NET framework doesn't support this concept.  So my only option to get this working the way I really want is to craft up my own Asynchronous read method.  Unfortunately, I can't think of a way to do this that avoids the polling scenario I have already implemented.

Long Flights

The delay since my last post is due to a business trip I had to take.  It involved a couple of really long flights on really large planes.  It left me with a couple of thoughts.  So this post is in the outstandingly unlikely hope that some influential person in the airline industry is reading and acts on these comments.

First, airline food has improved quite a bit from what I remember.  Domestic flights rarely offer you more than salted pretzels, but this 12 hour between Detroit and Nagoya, Japan, had two full meals and a large snack.  Each dinner meal offered a choice of chicken or beef (sounds like a wedding reception) and each breakfast meal offered a choice between chicken and eggs.  I went with chicken for dinner and eggs for breakfast.  It was surprisingly edible...not something you would seek out of course, but definitely better than, say, elementary school cafeteria fare.  My only recommendation here would be to include more non-soda options for drinks, chocolate milk being at the top of my list.

Seating was a bit improved from my previous trans-atlantic flight.  Flying economy from Detroit to Amsterdam ten years ago, my knees were solidly wedged into the reclining metal hinge of the seat in front of me.  Whenever the passenger in front wanted to recline it resulted in spasms of pain and shuffling around on my part.  This flight gave me a good two inches between my knee and the next seat, which was greatly appreciated.  There is still a long way to go before this can be called comfortable though.  I opted for a window seat on all occassions because I like the view and I feel I'm bothered less in that spot.  Still, a cold war sprang up between me and the passenger next to me for ownership of the arm rest.  The "reclined" position of the seat is about a two degree difference from the upright position.  The worst part for me was that I could not get my head or my legs into a comfortable position.  The headrest of the seat seems to be sloped to intentionally cause the drowsy travellers head to crash into either the wall or the passenger next to you, leaving your neck sore.  I had a travel pillow, which was good for keeping my head in place but offered just enough padding that my head was always pitched forward.  There was nothing to be done about my legs.  I found the best I could manage was to put my duffle bag under my feet to elevate my legs a bit.  Getting up to take a stroll isn't really possible in the economy section.  Fortunately I'm not afflicted with claustrophobia, but after 12 hours of being held captive in tight quarters I was feeling a little delirious.

A couple of movies were shown during the flight as entertainment.  Honestly I would have preferred that they just leave the telematics data on display, as I found it more entertaining (we cruised at close to 600mph with an outside temperature hovering around -100 degrees btw).  The movies played were Baby Mama, Bonneville, and Swing Vote.  I'm sure some committee got together to determine which modestly recent films would be the most inoffensive to the widest possible audience.  Seriously, if those are your criteria, just shut the thing off.  IMDB has these films rated in the solid 6 out of 10, and barely making that 6.  Very few passengers were paying any attention at all to the screen.  Most were either a) trying in futility to sleep, or b) engrossed in some personal entertainment gadget or book.  

Storage was actually surprisingly good, although I wasn't carrying much onboard.  I had my laptop briefcase that I didn't want to leave my site, and a small messenger bag with books and gadgets in it to keep me entertained.  The overhead bins had plenty of room, and my bag fit comfortably under the seat in front of me.

The cabin temperature was nice and cool for the trip, possibly a little too cool.  It didn't bother me while I was reading, but when I tried to fall asleep I felt a distinct chill.  The provided blanket is some relief.

So here is the short form of the tips for the airline:
  • Wider arm rests
  • Chocolate milk
  • Better in-flight entertainment
  • Power outlet at the seat (even a powered USB port would be good)
  • Foot rests
Here is a crazy idea: how about bungee cord stirrups under each seat.  This would allow some resistance to stretching your legs without requiring that I disturb the other passengers to get up and walk.

Also, for any passengers out there readying for a long flight, here are some tips to help you survive:
  • Get a (thin) U-shaped travel pillow
  • bring a small bag with entertainment to stow under the seat
  • Use the airline blanket like a shawl, not like a blanket. Your legs will be warm because you are wearing pants like a sane person.  Your arms will be cold, so wrap the blanket around your back and neck and drape it across your arms
  • Use the airline pillow for lumbar support
  • Books can be read at anytime, unlike electronics that must be switched off
  • An iPod can be enjoyed with your head leaning back unlike a book where your head is pitched forward.
  • Bring a snack.  You may not like some of the food, or you may just get hungry.  Cookies keep well and are easy to stow in the seatback.

Blu-Ray Movie

Last night I got my first chance to watch a Blu-Ray movie on the PS3, and to be honest, I think I was hoping for a little bit more. Maybe the difference is more stark on a 1080p television, but on my 1080i set not so much. The biggest difference was in sound quality. I couldn't support the best audio option out of the PS3, but the bitstream option sounded better than our current DVD player does. The picture quality, while better, wasn't amazingly better. We have a progressive scan (480p) DVD player now, which looks great on our set. Our television is rear project 55" set that is about 5 years old. It uses the tradition 3-tube setup (3 monitors at the bottom, one red, blue, and green, converged by a mirror onto a screen), not the newer DLP, LCD, or plasma that are common in larger sets. Maybe with one of those newer technologies at the higher 1080p resolution it would really shine, but as it stands I'm less than blown away. The price premium for a Blu-Ray film vs. a DVD is anywhere from 50-100% depending on where you buy. So is it worth buying the movie twice to see this upgrade? For me, I'm not there yet. Hopefully the price of Blu-Ray movies come down over the next year as the price of players also fall and become more common place. Another hope of mine is to get a new big screen 1080p set so I can test my theory of the better picture on the newer set. Unfortunately, I don't see that one happening anytime soon :-P

I Voted!

Have you? Today is the big day! If you are registered to vote, haven't voted yet, and are able to get to the polls.... GET GOING!

PS3 and LittleBigPlanet

So after my rant about the lack of good games on the market, I lucked out and received a PlayStation 3 and LittleBigPlanet as gifts. After spending a day playing around with the system and game, I have some initial reactions. First, what a beautiful machine! The PS3 certainly has a professional look to it. It looks right at home among the other A/V equipment on the shelf. The main system interface is a little polluted, but not difficult to learn and navigate. The controller is going to look immediately familiar to anyone who has play a PlayStation 2, as the buttons and layout are identical. The only difference is the cord - a detachable USB cable. The controller that came with my unit is the new DualShock 3 controller, which has both rumble and the six-axis waggle.

After updating to the latest firmware and signing up for a PSN account, I scheduled a bunch of game demos and movie trailers to download. Here is where I think the PlayStation 3 has a real leg up on the Wii. The Wii Channel is meant to give you a way to view trailers and download demos of some DS games. The PlayStation Network (PSN) is so much better. Not only can you get demos for the PSP and PS3, but you can also get trailers for movies and a slew of great content. Downloads can be performed in the background, unlike the Wii where you must complete the download before doing anything else. I got a couple of trailers for Wall-E (I love that movie) as well as the demos for Mirror's Edge, LEGO Batman, and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. The downloads were huge (over 1GB in the case of Star Wars), but it was nice to be able to do other things while they downloaded. I let the controller charge and went outside with the family while it finished the download.

The first demo I played was for Mirror's Edge. This is a FPS game that has you running and jumping much like a free-runner from rooftop to rooftop. This was also must first taste of the six-axis control, which I found to be grossly inferior to the Wii controllers. Really, if this is the best it can be used for, Sony should just save the cost of the parts and remove it from the controller. The biggest problem is that while holding the controller your hands simply can't move in a natural way to "waggle". Tipping forward and back is about the best you can manage. I was glad to see that none of the games I tried depended on this feature.

Graphically, the PS3 is night and day better than the Wii. This wasn't really a surprise, as the Wii has been described as two GameCubes duct taped together. Still, the system really brought out the best in our HD set. The HD trailers I downloaded looked phenomenal, as did the games. We haven't watched a movie on it yet to see how well it upconverts. I suppose the only drawback is that the crispness and brightness of the picture has me thinking about getting a 1080p set for the basement so I can see the machine perform at the highest resolution (our current set is 1080i).

This brings me to LittleBigPlanet. LittleBigPlanet has gotten a ton of media hype over the last few months. It's a simple platformer with gorgeous graphics. So what makes LBP so special? The interactivity and customizability. From the get-go, LBP is giving you the tools and showing you tricks on how to construct a fun level for a platform jumping game. You can either play the levels created by the game designers - there are 50 of them and the few I've seen are a lot of fun, or you can create your own levels. In addition, you can sign on to your PSN account and play levels that others have created, and other players can join you. It opens the door for some fantastic user-created content, and Sony is really pushing folks to come up with interesting levels. I think this will do wonders for the replayability of this game. The family has given it a try, and everyone is enjoying it so far.

If you have a PS3 and a sense of humor and fun, I can definitely recommend picking up LBP. If you are in the market for a Blu-Ray player and also enjoy games, the PlayStation 3 is a solid appliance. If you are in the market for a gaming system....I haven't seen enough to give a firm recommendation there. Between the Wii, the XBox 360, and the PlayStation 3 (not to mention the DS and PSP), you have a lot of choices to make about your personal preferences and style.


People who enjoy video games have a certain stereo-type:

  • Pale and Pasty
  • Overweight
  • Weak
  • Socially backward
It's not a pretty picture. Fortunately, that image is going through something of a change, thanks in part to the growing popularity of "exer-gaming" titles. Exer-gaming titles are games that require you to move around to play. These games fall into a variety of categories and styles.

Dance Games

There are a variety of dance games out there, but the most popular are the Bemani games published by Konami under the nam

e Dance Dance Revolution (DDR). In these games you must follow a pattern of footsteps displayed on the screen in synchronization to the beat of the music. You can start out light with just a few steps and a slow song, but you can really work up a sweat if you turn up the beat. Many iterations of the game include a workout mode that will count your steps and give you an estimated number of calories burned.

Drumming Games

The Donkey Konga series of games and Taiko Drum Master games utilize a drum / bongos and this can be a nice workout for your arms. The frantic drumming in Donkey Konga makes a heck of a racket, but it is a lot of fun. My son and I will play this together and it doesn't take long before we are both grinning ear to ear and wearing out our arms.

Full Body Workouts

The Wii Fit and the PlayStation Eye Toy both are used in games that encourage a full body workout. In the case of the Wii Fit, the accessory is intended fitness directly. The game that comes with it steps you through a variety of simple exercises and tracks your progress. The eye toy has a variety of uses, but in DDR games it can be used to also track arm movements. In this way you get a full body workout rather than just your legs.

There are a lot of options out there now for folks to change the stereo-type of the gamer.  And guys, if you need a little more encouragement to jump into this, here you go.

The Lorax

Each night I read books to the kids before they go to sleep. The Dr. Seuss books are my favorites to read. If you haven't read any Seuss in a while, you might enjoy heading to the library or bookstore and leafing through a copy of the Lorax. This tale of industry vs. the environment has a lesson for everyone, and it is one of my favorite Dr. Seuss stories.

Humor from the Presidential Candidates

These two clips are some nice comedy relief from our two presidential candidates.

Where have all the good games gone?

I'm a gamer.  I love to play video games.  For as long as I remember I've looked forward to browsing through the latest game offerings and wishing I could play everything.  Lately, though, I feel like I've been in a slump.  Where are all the great games?  Store shelves are stocked with variations on a theme:  Generic First-Person-Shooter 7, Generic 3D Platformer 9, Nostalgia Retro Mashup 4, SPORT!  I take a look through the list of games coming soon and I don't get the least bit excited.  I was considering a PS3, but after looking through the paltry list of titles worth playing, that's out.  An Xbox 360 has a better selection, but nothing incredibly interesting.  We have a Wii in the house, but the most excitement we've gotten out of that lately are LEGO games.  I'm not looking for a ultra-violent blood soaked adventure.  I'm not looking for an exercise / brain training game.  I'm looking for something fun and innovative.  Something that makes you smile when you play it.  Something that doesn't require an immense investment.  Where are you fun games?

The best game I've played recently is BioShock.  That was a very interesting variation on the FPS theme, but at its core was still just a FPS.  Games that fall into the category that I'm looking for are games like Katamari Damacy and Elite Beat Agents.  There are a couple of games like that out now (Loco Roco, Patapon) but two interesting games is not worth the price of admission ($200 for a PSP plus the cost of the game).  A quick look at upcoming games with a lot of hype doesn't really offer me anything.  Gears of War 2 is a console based FPS.  Strike one - I can't stand console based FPS games.  The control is vastly inferior to what you get on a PC.  Strike 2 - Nothing interesting in this game to make it stand out from, well, Doom really.  And that game is how old now?  15 years old!  Call of Duty : World at War.  Again, another FPS, and this the fourth in the COD series.  Even the developers are getting tired of this and have said this will be their last WWII based FPS.  How about the Wrath of the Lich King expansion to World of Warcraft?  As tempting as that sounds, I've been off the WarCrack for some time and don't really want to relapse.  Fall0ut 3 and Resident-Evil 5 are coming up.  Both are third person shooter adventures.  I know, third person, what a revolutionary take on the first person genre right?

So what games are coming out that don't involve first or third person shooting?  LittleBigPlanet is one.  I'll admit, this one is an interesting variation on the 3D platformer theme.  Unfortunately this media darling title is only available on the PS3, and is about the only really interesting title for the system.  With a PS3 system running around $400 and the game another $60 or so on top of that, it better be one helluva game.  Fable 2 is out for the Xbox 360.  I really enjoyed the first one, but again is it worth purchasing a whole new system to play one game?  Admittedly, the 360 has a pretty rich library of games, so it wouldn't be an entirely bad move.  However, $250 for a new system plus the cost of the game is pretty steep.  Guitar Hero might be fun, and I do like rhythm based games.  Unfortunately most of the content for Guitar Hero is 80's and 90's pop rock, which I was never a big fan of.  

The one ray of hope for interesting new games are the downloadable content on each system.  The WiiWare titles on the Wii have been unique games, like World of Goo, that don't conform to the typical releases from major vendors.  The Wii Virtual Console doesn't get me all that excited because the nostalgia of the old games wears off too fast.  The WiiWare titles, on the other hand, are new content.  The DS also seems to have the occassional divergent game, but these have so far been few and far between.  The Wii has been a lot of fun so far, but lately Nintendo has seemed to avoid releasing true games.  Between the Wii Fit, Wii Sports, and the myriad of franchise rehashes, there hasn't been much of interest to a jaded gamer looking for something new to play.  Exer-gaming is fun, and I'm glad that Nintendo is getting non-traditional gamers into the mix, but I want to play a fun video game.

Have I missed something?  Is there something out there right now that is new, different, and fun that I've just overlooked?  I'm looking for suggestions here, so if there is something you've discovered and enjoyed, drop me a line in the comments.

Drive Space Recovery

If you are like me, when you bought your computer it had an enormous amount of hard drive space that you thought you would never fill.  As time passed and you continued to use the machine, you saw that seemingly impossibly large drive accumulate more and more cruft until one day you get the dreaded "Insufficient Disk Space" message.  Then you make a mad scramble to see just what you can delete safely and not regret later.

The article at 

is a really useful guide for folks using the Vista operating system on how to get some of that missing drive space back.  This works for Windows XP users too, although to a somewhat lesser degree.  Right click on the drive you want to cleanup, then choose properties.  The General Tab will have a button for Disk Cleanup right next to the pie showing you how little space you have left.  If you make use of all of the options in this tool, you can get a suprising amount of drive space back.  Even better, check-out the advanced cleaning options and eliminate all but your last restore point.  Restore points consume a ridiculous amount of space on your drive.

After taking advantage of the advice from that article, I managed to recover 22.3GB of hard drive space.  That's a little more than 10% of the drive!  Even better, I didn't have to make any difficult decisions about backing up or deleting music, pictures, videos, documents, or projects that I had worked on over time.


I mentioned in an earlier post that I was getting irritated with GoogleTalk.  I decided to go back to my old friend GAIM to give it another try.  GAIM was the name of an open source instant messaging application that allowed you to communicate on a variety of messaging networks at once.  GAIM has since changed it's name to Pidgin.  The concept is still the same though.  If you find yourself running multiple instant messaging clients (such as GoogleTalk, AIM, MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, ICQ, etc.) this single client can eliminate a lot of clutter for you.  

Pidgin doesn't expose the full feature set of all of the IM clients.  Instead, it focuses on the messaging portion.  So while you can't play games, share a white board, voice chat, or use any of the other sophisticated features that each individual client might supply, you can write text back and forth.  And really, this is 99% of what I'm looking for out of an instant messenger.

Pidgin is not the easiest software to use.  It does attempt to simplify the process of setting up accounts and getting connected, but if you are behind a firewall you'll need to do some experimenting to get each client setup.  If this doesn't frighten you, Pidgin is a pretty useful app for condensing all of those IM clients into a single interface.  Pidgin isn't the only player in this space.  Another popular app is Trillian is also quite popular.  Just like Pidgin, it permits you to communicate to folks on your buddy list from a variety of IM networks.  Trillian has a free client, and pay-for Pro client as well.  I used Trillian a few years back, and it was a good tool.  I may give it another try to see how it compares with Pidgin.

For you typing social butterflies, Pidgin can be a pretty useful tool.


My Aunt referenced me to the site GENi.  GENi is a free genealogy website where you can create your family tree and invite your family to continue to fill in the details.  The interface is very easy to use, which is good for when the family historean and the family computer wiz are not the same person.  You can enter dates for any special events for your family, including births, deaths, weddings, and any other occassion.  You can upload photos and videos and tag them to members of your family.  

As far as privacy goes, GENi describes who can see your profile based on degrees of seperation.  Anyone who is fifth cousin or closer is one security level.  Beyond that is a second security level.  People you mark as friends are in a third security level, and then there is a fourth, final security level that applies to everyone.  In this way, you can keep your family tree private from the entire web world, and expose different levels of information based on how closely you are related.

GENi is particpatory, so the results of your family tree are going to vary based on how much of your family history you know, and how willing your other family members are to enter additional details.  GENi does not perform any research for you.  Our tree is pretty interesting because my grandmother, aunts, and uncles have already posted a number of photos and entered details for my ancestors that I never knew.  I've augmented the tree with additional people not already listed.  In doing so, whenever I attach an e-mail address to a new family member on the tree, that person is invited to add new details.

I spent entirely too many hours the first night browsing the tree and expanding on family members.  If you enjoy genealogy you will probably like this site. (

Discovering Fishers

One of my co-workers is finishing up his graduate project, and the results are looking good.  He has created a mapping plug-in for WordPress that allows you to associate a location on a Google Map with the blog post.  You can check it out here: Discovering Fishers.  The site is just a reference implementation for the mapping plug-in, but it is pretty interesting to see all of the green resources that are available in our area.

Donor Point

If you are a current blood donor or have considered donating blood, now there is an extra incentive.  The Indiana Blood Center is offering rewards for donations through the Donor Point program.  Each time you donate, you get 100 points, and you can use those points towards rewards on the Donor Point site.  If you set your appointment through the Donor Point site and keep it, you get an additional 100 points.  If you make a habit of donating every two months, those points can add up fast.

Another benefit is that the site will keep track of your cholesterol level from each donation.  The result is a nice graph of your cholesterol level over time.  It is cheaper than a trip to the doctor, and it gives me the feedback I need to know if my diet and exercise are having the positive effect that I was hoping for.

Even if the rewards and cholesterol information don't appeal to you, please consider donating blood.  If a blood mobile is at your work or in your neighborhood, it only takes 15 minutes to donate.  The Indiana Blood Center supplies over 550 units of blood every day to 60 hospitals throughout the state, and equivalent blood centers throughout the rest of the country are under similar demands.

The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide

Being a geek, there is a certain canon of literature you are expected to have read. Hitchhiker's Guide is one of the books on that shelf. I saw the movie some time ago and really enjoyed it. It was wacky and fun, and didn't take itself seriously. I bought the collected works of the series so I could fully immerse myself, not just dabble. After finishing the collection reading straight through, I think this was a mistake.

It's not that the books aren't enjoyable, because they are. It's that the style is sledgehammering consistent throughout. The wackiness of the storyline just starts to wear. I think I would have enjoyed the collection much more if I had simply read one book, then carried on about my life for some time before trying the next. As it stands, I don't think I fully appreciated each component of the collection. The first book "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe" I enjoyed very much. Life, the Universe, and Everything kept me turning pages as well.

I think part of the problem is that there is simply no plot. The stories follow the life of one Arther Dent. A wholly unremarkable fellow who is forced through an incredibly remarkable life. Reading over 800 pages in succession without any form of plot to pull you along can get a bit tedious. Which is why I heartily recommend that if you want to truly enjoy this series, read one book, then go away and do something else for a while. Do read it, though, as Douglas Adams use of the English language and storytelling are very enjoyable. As to this edition of the book (The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide - Deluxe Edition), I can only recommend it in so much as it will be mistaken for a Bible when you are reading it on a plane, and people will treat you nicely for it.

Total Home Digital Video Recorder from AT&T U-Verse

The Total Home Digital Video Recorder (THDVR) is here! When we first signed-up for AT&T U-Verse service, the tech mentioned that two big features were scheduled to arrive this year. As I reported back in March, one of the few things we didn't care for about U-Verse service was the limitation of a single High Definition stream. We could watch or record one channel in HD, but the rest had to be standard definition (SD). The second issue was that each home was limited to a single DVR. With Comcast we had two DVRs. The tech said that both of our irritations would be addressed with future software rollouts planned for this year. Two months ago we noticed that AT&T had switched on the 2HD/2SD service, which allows us to watch two high definition streams and two standard definition streams simultaneously in the house. Last week I noticed that the non-DVR equipped sets had the option to view recorded programs. Yeah, the THDVR has arrived!

For folks who use DirectTV, this is nothing new, but I'll explain for those who don't quite know what I mean. In our house, we have one TV that is connected to a DVR, and three TVs that are connected to standard set top boxes (STB). The TV with the DVR can schedule recordings and play them back. The other TVs cannot. Now that the DVR and STBs have been upgraded we can schedule a recording from any TV in the house, and watch it from any TV in the house. So if I'm sitting in the living room and I see that Battlestar Galactica is going to be on later, I can schedule it to record. The next day, when I'm on the treadmill in the basement, I can watch that recording. Not only that, the kids could be in the family room watching a recorded episode of Dora, while my wife is in the living room watching the latest episode of Pushing Daisies in HD.

It's nice to see our service provider keeping a promise and rolling out new features without increasing our costs. This just affirms for us that switching from Comcast was the right decision.

Good Reads

Earlier this year when I was on a business trip, one of my colleagues and I got to talking about the books we read. Turns out, we have a lot of common interests. I have a wide range of interests, but the majority of what I read for fun are science fiction books. He also enjoyed science fiction books, and had recommendations on authors I might be interested in. Before I left, he referenced me to his Good Reads account, which lists all of the books he has read, as well as any thoughts he might have on them.

I played with the site ( for a bit and signed up for an account. It's a neat service. You can list all of the books you have read, are currently reading, or plan to read in the future. You can view what other people are reading, and their opinion on books they have read in the past. You can setup a friends list, which acts as a sort of MySpace style linking between accounts. It's a nice way to share your book reading interests and to get tips from friends.

I do have a couple of beefs with the site though. First, the friend invite feature is a bit confusing. I intended to send an invite to a handful of folks that the site found were already in my yahoo address book and were also on the site. One click too many led to me inviting everyone on my yahoo address book (182 addresses!) to the site. Not what I intended to do, and I apologize for the spam if you got one of those invites. In addition, getting general recommendations based on what you've read in the past is not very intuitive. I can view one of the books I've read and see a list of comments from other readers. I can then see what those other readers have read, but there is no aggregation to say something like "80% of people who rated this book the way you did also rated another book highly". So you either have to find someone else with very similar interests, or do a lot of digging on your own.

Overall, I do like the site, and from time to time as I remember I keep my account up to date. I've added a link to my link-roll on the right so you can get to it easily and see what I'm reading. I also like that I can make notes on books I would like to read in the future, as I often hear of a good recommendation, and then forget about it later. If you are a book reader, you might find this site useful.

Jade Mason