Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Fullmetal Alchemist

Yes, I know it has been a while.  But it just means I have more stuff to write about.  I have recently purchased a new Apple TV unit and have also signed up for Netflix which I find replaced all my video store trip needs.  It, as well, had inadvertently rekindled my love for anime series.  Netflix (Canada) has a pretty decent collection of anime classics one of which fortunately happens to be The Fullmetal Alchemist series.  I had often heard how popular the series was in the early 2K from friends but I did not realize how well written the story was.

Fullmetal Alchemist tells the story of brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric who like their absent father before them were themselves gifted alchemists - scientists of their reality who specialize in the breakdown and reconstruction of matter.  Alchemists of their world are able to invoke forces to bend and shape matter to suit their needs and desires, the only rule being that humans can not get more or less of what they put into to the process of transmutation - a law they refer to as "the law of equivalent exchange".

Trouble and the series long struggle begins when the Elric brothers decide to use alchemy to bring back their dead mother.  Although respecting the laws of equivalent exchange as best they could they could not account for the cost of a soul and, thus at the added cost of one of Edward's legs and Alphonse's body they unknowingly summon into existence a soulless creature known as a homunculus.  The creature appears to die immediately leaving Edward to realize the demise of his brother.  Distraught at the loss of his brother Edward sacrifices one of his arms to bind Alphonse's fleeting soul into an empty suit of armor before passing out.

Alphonse awakens now a tireless suit of armor and immediately rushes an unconscious Edward to the neighbors for help.  Edward recovers from loss of his limbs and gets his neighbors to build him a mechanical leg and arm.  Realizing he and Alphonse have paid heavily for their mistakes Edward becomes determined to find a way to recover Alphonse's body.  Alphonse now virtually immortal and with out the limitations of a human body decides to join Edward hoping himself that he too can recover Edward's loss limbs.

The 51 episode journey follows the brothers on their quest which leads them from Edward's inductance to the military as a government sponsored (State) alchemist to their eventual quest for the Philosopher's Stone which is believed to grant alchemist the power to transmute with out obeying the laws of equivalent exchange.  At times to counter the overall seriousness of the themes the show reverts to short but sweet anime humor often resulting from Edward's damaged ego regarding his height but nevertheless the series takes on very heavy and adult themes such as redemption, greed, and the bonds of family.  I would recommend the series for those looking for a good balance of action and story and just plain fun.  Netflix offers the full 51 episode series in their anime repertoire.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Vector graphics creation - Art Text 2

I was in the need of a logo for a new project of mine.  Few suggestions came - Illustrator, Inkscape, someone's daughter who was a graphic designer.  All suggestions of course involved money (I did not have much of), or a steep and frustrating learning curve on vector graphics program 101, or hacks which went against my new go legit policy.  I googled vector programs for the Mac and came across Art Text 2 on the Apple site.

I downloaded the demo and saw it had some familiar but simplified array of drawing tools.  I could do a logo in text based on any of my locally available fonts or I could add a combination of shapes into the work.  Each entity added came on its own layer and can be edited as a wire frame of nodes and curves; furthermore, I had the option to perform some simple Boolean between layers where it would produce a shape that would be the union, subtraction, or intersection of two layer entities.

Every shape/layer could also be further adjusted by color, fitted or warped into a preset shape, or set to glow or cast shadows.  The program also came with some presets and a gallery of logos, buttons, and headers that I can use to start off a project.  I can as well store my own presets for later reuse.  It essentially has enough tricks to pull off a 10 minute logo which then can be saved or exported into any bitmap format for any of my website projects or letter heads.

Vector programs are essential for printing since line art and text produced can be hypothetically scaled to any size with out pixellation.  Vector data is a road map to every shape you draw and is not bounded to pixel counts and can, therefore, adjust its resolution when being sized up and (to a limit) when being sized down.  Art Text 2 for $40 can offer you the tools to quickly come up with a logo for branding project you might want to undertake.  For developers who have at least some experience with Photoshop and no experience with vector programs such as illustrator the learning curve is relatively quick.  You can find Art Text 2 for on-line purchase on the Apple site.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Prestige

There has not been any Christopher Nolan movie that I have not enjoyed.  The director knows how to tell a story and keeps you quite entertained with a good balance of top rate acting, special effects, and action all to support a very believable story.  The man is also very good at directing movies about obsession.  Like the new Batman series, and another favorite of mine, Memento, The Prestige is definitely a movie about obsession.  Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play two passionate magicians Robert Angiers and Alfred Borden during turn of the century England.

On the verge of going on their own from being accomplices in a dangerous act gone old, Angiers loses his wife during a performance at the reckless hands of Borden.  Borden dismisses it as part of the sacrifice of pursuing a good performance and continues on.  Angiers, of course, who had lost everything swears to out do Borden at every opportunity he gets.  Angiers ignites the war between them when he sabotages Borden's performance and blows two of Borden's fingers off with a gun in the process.

The two continue a bitter struggle of besting and sabotaging one another's acts and lives until it culminates into Angiers obsession with finding the secret to Borden's unmatchable "Transported Man" trick.  The trick has Borden bounce a red rubber ball while entering one of two cabinets quite a distance apart and appearing in the opposite cabinet to catch the bouncing ball as if he had been magically transported from one cabinet to the other instantaneously.  The trick is so great that Angiers is pushed to his limits to best Borden's trick.

After many attempts to come up with his own version of Borden's feat Angiers risks everything to get his hands on Borden's encrypted journal and the keyword "Tesla" which Borden reveals to Angiers is not only the journal's keyword but secret to his "Transported Man" trick.  The journal and keyword lead him to scientist Nikolai Tesla who had been conducting his infamous power transmission experiments in Colorado, America.

The journal talked about a machine Tesla had built that was the key to Borden's trick.  Angiers pays Tesla a fortune to reproduce the same machine for him at which he reluctantly accepts the task which takes him months.  During this time Angiers reads further into Borden's journal where he is thrown into another revelation - that Borden had tricked him again and lead him through the journal to a wild goose chase.  Not knowing if the journal revelation itself was another trick Angiers presses on waiting and Tesla manages to unveil the machine he promises.  At first the machine seemed to not work at all and did not transport several test objects through the air as he believed it would; however, it did something else even more impossible than just transporting.  The machine had duplicated the target object some distance away from the original - any object.  Angiers had his miracle.

Angiers returns to England announcing to his crew he was going to perform his last and greatest show.  The finale of his act would use Tesla's machine to perform his "Real Transported Man" trick where upon disappearing in a crescendo of electrical arcs he would instantaneously reappear at the back of the theater.  The trick is a hit and for once we see now Borden obsessed with finding out Angiers' secret.  Finally after weeks of Angiers' success Borden attends Angiers' show in disguise and sneaks behind stage to find out the secret to the trick.  Borden is surprised to find Angiers trapped in a similar water cabinet that had killed his wife.  Angiers drowns in the cabinet despite Borden's attempts to save him and Borden is subsequently arrested, tried, and found guilty for Angiers' murder and is sentenced to hang.

It is at this point shortly after we are revealed the secrets of both men at the bottom of a run down theater where Angiers hides the secret to his version of the "Transported Man" trick.  Borden who we are lead to believe is hung for Angiers' death finds and shoots Angiers who we at that point find out that he was not apparently killed the night of his last show.  As he is dieing Angiers reveals that he had been using Tesla's machine to duplicate him self a distance away from the machine and using the trap door below the stage to trap and drown the version of him self that would be on the stage.  His crew would then wheel the water cabinet and dead body to the location beneath the run down theater to hide his dark secret.  Borden reveals to Angiers that he in fact had an identical twin brother.  He and his twin had gone to great lengths to play the same man and perform their greatest trick.  The man who had hung was his brother and the Borden that stands before the dieing Angiers had been left to carry out their last act of revenge.  Angiers dies and the remaining Borden turns to raising his daughter in his immediate future.

The twisting and well thought out plot was quite entertaining; however, I find that sometimes cramming it all into the 2.5 hours of a movie results in plot holes which wouldn't have been if more attention was being put into detailing the continuity of the story.  I myself did not catch Borden's explanation of his twin and I was lead to believe for a while after the movie that Borden had used Tesla's machine to produce his double.  Despite a few minor plot holes which were cleared up after much thought and replay I did enjoy this movie.  The movie was told with flash backs flipping back and forth between the two men at different points in time reading each others journals and slowly revealing each others schemes on one another.  The story telling style gave the whole movie the same appeal as the performance of a magic trick.  The casting and acting was top rate which included the likes of Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Micheal Caine, Scarlet Johanssen, and the most surprising of all, David Bowie, as a very believable Nikolai Tesla and Andy Serkis (of Gollum fame from Lord of the Rings) as Tesla's assistant.  The movie is a modern "must watch" on my list and lives up to its punch line of "watch closely".

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Warhammer: Age of Reckoning (online)

Ok.  I was never going to try it but the other day an old WoW friend of mine gave me the low down on the current Warhammer online experience.  The Electronic Arts attempt to cash in on disgruntled WoW players turned fail is now offering the online experience for free - up until level 11.  So I downloaded the on-line client from the Warhammer site Saturday while I hosted my Pub Club Meet-Up and when I was pretty much ready to go once my self-induced euphoria of pumpkin beers wore off.  I hastily fumbled through the 2 faction, 6 race character creation interface and made my Greenskin (Orcs and Goblins) shaman.

So what can you do with 11 levels?  Much.  Yesterday I spent my whole afternoon levelling my Greenskin shaman and manage to get up to level 5 on my own.  For an experienced WoW player there are many similarities between the interfaces - the actionbars, mini-map, 3D third-person perspectives, and paper doll interfaces are all there (which should be standard in 2010 for all following in Blizzard's path to success).  The graphics were slightly choppy in certain points but at least for now did not cramp the experience - although I was overhearing on my guild's vent constant complaints about lag.

In any case in my 5 level window of game play I got to experience the rather easy orientation of the game mechanics.  My general comment about this game is this game is what PVP WoW should have been.  This game is about PVP or what their version is referred to as Realm vs Realm (RVR) from the start of the game.  The starter areas are tame enough to get you use to the UI with out getting pwned by some rabid pack of killer bunnies.  As you progress along with running some simple experience building quests you start realizing that everything you do contributes to the progression of your faction.  You do not have to join a group but when you do participate in a realm quest everyone rolls for a substantial piece of loot once the event is successfully completed.  There are of course other solo quests to be done but these as well contribute to your faction's influence on an area.  As you progress past the noobness you can (even unto and nearing level 11) participate in actual PVP which also contributes in someway to your character's experience gain.

I also did manage to try out their crafting system (since I was just a big crafting nerd in WoW) and I actually liked its simpler but more integrated system.  Crafting and secondary skill are based on gathering and assembling recipes and on trial and error.  I chose the butchering/alchemy route.  Butchering is very much like skinning in WoW but instead of furs you gather all kinds of interesting reagents from creatures you have killed.  The reagents are classed as different grades of components in a typical alchemy formula.  In alchemy you start with a container (test tube) and a main ingredient.  The main ingredient determines what the over all effect of the potion is (i.e. immobilization, healing, curing).  To complete the concoction you have 3 slots which you can put  more support reagents to the mixture.  Since every mixture has a chance of failing you can add reagents to assure the stability of the mixture.  Likewise there are other support reagents that can enhance the potency of the formula but during the early levels of your alchemy you pretty much have to rely on stabilizing reagents to assure your success.  This system is slightly like the alchemy system in another game I still have yet to finish, The Witcher (which is probably why I find myself wanting to run around the woods killing creatures instead of participating in RVR).

I admit I have not really seen the total experience in Warhammer and I am still missing the true RVR battle experience the game specializes in.  I can, however, say that for anyone wanting a full fun try at the MMO experience that will not eat up your life or get you jones-ing for constant "IGL" hits give Warhammer: Age of Reckoning a try.  The game is available for on-line download for both Windows and Mac from www.warhammeronline.com .

Monday, August 2, 2010

MAMP - Mac Development Webserver in a box

I was looking into getting a developer account to prototype my development on the web.  There are many relatively cheap packages out there but my idea setup costs $60 USD (which I'm trying to save).  I have used WAMP - essentially a web-server-in-a-box solution that sets you up with a PHP-MYSQL server that you can install your latest PHP-web development project and can be browsed locally with any browser you have installed on a windows machine.  MAMP is the Mac equivalent.

I was quite impressed with the easy installation.  With a simple drag and drop to my application folder I had a webserver ready to go on PHP5.3 and MYSQL5.  I immediately installed a Modx 1.0.4 instance and it was running with in 5 minutes. 

I had a little trouble with installing a Modx gallery module.  It turned out I required a slight php.ini edit to turn off 'magic quotes' which I might add was even easier than editing my work development server's php.ini since the config file was easily found in the MAMP's application config folder.

MAMP comes with a configuration interface that allows you to change where the resource files are accessed and the 'big switch' that shuts down or starts up your MAMP server instance.  MAMP has two release versions - one free and one 'professional' version which allows users to setup simultaneous multiple MAMP instances.  For most of my development needs, however, I can deal with one server.  Both versions also come with a local web interface that give you easy access to the phpinfo page (that reports the status of your php server) and a phpmyadmin instance to monitor and edit your MAMP server mysql installation.  For more information and the downloads go to http://www.mamp.info/en/index.html.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Personal device enhancements - makeownringtone.com

I have recently become a Blackberry user and am quite liking the added connections to the internet on my person.  I was quite happy with my cell phone\iTouch combo but like the fact the essentials, Facebook, messengers, and phone are all one device in my pocket (though I'm told I should get a holster).

It's been a quite satisfying 2 weeks with the new personal device and yesterday I decided to add a custom ringtone to my Blackberry.  I was not quite sure how this was done but I suspected that emailing myself the audio file probably had something to do with it.  After a bit of reading and much playing around with the settings I figured how to set the profiles and attach a ringtone to an event or a number.  All that was left was to figure how to send my phone the custom audio files.

After a little bit of searching I found http://www.makeownringtone.com/ .  An app site that you can upload an audio file and with a few options set to your post processing preferences the site displays a URL that you have to browse with your personal device's browser to download the generated file.  The app offers some basic post processing to add some finishing touches to your ring tone.  The best thing about the site (other than being free) is that the send to your cell option doesn't have you add your cell number where they can put you on a phone list texting scam.

The Wire - Requiem

I finally got around to finishing The Wire.  Season 5 is it - the end.  I have been avoiding it like the plague because no one likes seeing things pass and I have been privy to some of the plot thanks to Wikipedia.  The last season had debut in 2008 so many of you are probably thinking "old news".  In any case I did enjoy the season and liked how Season 5 actually had a fitting denouement.

Season 5 continued with the Major Crimes Unit of Baltimore investigation of a drug gang headed by the cold and vicious street thug, Marlowe Stanfield.  With all leads gone cold in the middle of a city wide deficit the unit is disbanded and reassigned leaving the Stanfield crew free reign to over throw the established drug trade.

In the meanwhile obsessed with not losing on the work he has put into the investigation, Jimmy McNulty decides to do the unthinkable.  He tampers with evidence while investigating a homeless who had apparently died of natural causes to make it seem like the homeless man was killed.  He then proceeds to string together a bunch of old and new homeless deaths to make the whole city think that a serial killer is killing homeless men.  After much posturing in a troubled mayor office on how to turn a news worthy event into a positive spin on Mayor Carcetti's run for governor, Jimmy is given "carte blanche" to allocate an emergency fund to find his fictitious serial killer.

Jimmy instead allocates most of resources into completing the investigation on Marlowe Stanfield's crew and doles out the rest to investigations that baldy needed funding to close.  Though he is somewhat successful into ending Marlowe's current reign on the streets the effort does not put Marlowe him self behind bars and only manages to temporarily cripple the drug trade in Baltimore.  Furthermore, he and Lestor Freamon are quietly released from ever doing any more police work due to the conspiracy they propagated.

I found the end very believable and did a good job resolving the fates of our favorite characters on both sides of the law through out the series.  I even was quite satisfied on how they end off Jimmy McNulty's character in the series and was quite touched with the retirement "wake" they hold for Jimmy and Lester.

As for the series it self,  I still contend that The Wire is one of the best police series I have ever watched.  It is definitely a no holds barred look at how even in the modern American city the old problems of greed and apathy is core to the problems of the western society.  As depressing a realization as this maybe brought with each of The Wire's five seasons they still do make a point of saying that change is not impossible but requires tireless work that rarely goes rewarded for an individual but eventually does for a society.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Lord of Ultima

Lord of Ultima is a free on-line real time strategy (RTS) game produced by Electronic Arts.  It's remotely related to the Ultima RPG series which EA had produced through its sister company Origin back in the day but really only shares the logo and some references to places in the Ultima RPG universe.

By going through a quick sign-up and email confirmation  your are thrown into a quick and dirty tutorial to the resource management game most RTS's are known for.  You are given a kingdom fenced in by two enclosing walls and a governing building which provides basic resource production and storage facilities.  Your domain is randomly located on a vast world map also shared by other real players in various stages of their own domain's development.

As mentioned before the game is about resource management and resource development.  There are 4 raw materials you must manage: wood, stone, iron, and wheat.  Each resource has a use in the propagation of your kingdom.  Wood serves as a basic building material and fuel and is pretty much required in every development you do in the game.  Stone is merely a building resource for buildings and walls.  Iron is required for more advanced buildings but is mainly required for weaponry used by your armies.  Wheat is required to feed your armies and determine the size of the armies you can safely support.

When you start your "town hall" provides you a basic production of wood.  To progress from this state of noobness you will have to build more buildings that will enhance the productivity of your kingdom.  Some buildings process one of the main game resources from its surroundings.  The player can enhance the production of these buildings if they build them close to certain geographical entities that respectively represent the raw resources.  Other buildings increase your city's storage facilities so that surpluses aren't loss into the void.  Eventually the buildings you will want to build are the ones that produce armies which you can send to pillage and plunder randomly generated dungeons or other player owned cities.  Of course not all the building plans are available when you start and can only be unlocked by upgrading your town hall which usually comes at a high cost of resources.

The game as previously mentioned is on-line so you will have to deal with other players who may pose as an ally, or as a trading partner, or as a raiding enemy.  Players can make formal friendships called alliances which adds more direct lines of communication between players.  Alliances usually also means that any player moving in on your territories will have to deal with you and your friends.  Alternatively, once you build market places you can generate gold which then can be traded for resources from neighbouring kingdoms with surplus on the market.

EA offers regular play for free but of course they have other means of making money.  A shop of virtual goodies to enhance your kingdoms is available.  To purchase such enhancements you will have to trade cold hard credit for their virtual currency, diamonds.  With diamonds in hand you can either purchase artifacts that can be used to instantly replenish resources, speed up production, or enhance the probability of success that one of your armies will come back with returns and minimal losses.  Players can also buy 'advisors' who will look after your kingdom while you are indisposed of IRL.

I don't normally go out of my way to play RTS's but I will confess to an hour or so every night of Lord of Ultima for the past week.  You can check it out yourself at www.lordofultima.com, but be prepared to be somewhat distracted for a couple of upcoming nights.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Modx: Evolution

I have seen this CMS on the market for a couple of years now and was intrigued with its methods of providing users with a CMS that allowed people to designate different templates on different pages.  With previous CMS I have used most packages come with predefined sections designated where certain functionalities have to be accessed.  It can be quite frustrating when your clients want to be different than at least your other clients.

I have undertaken a new web project recently and decided to finally choose Modx as a back end platform.  Granted that I myself had to do a 10 part tutorial to understand what Modx has to offer and don't expect my clients to follow suite to manage their site.  Fortunately to simply add content I can break it down to my client in a 1 hour session.  As for designing web sites with a PHP backend Modx is a complete solution for developers looking for solutions for clients who want to do a periodical website with varying layouts.  Since Modx allows users to designate a template for a page that he is posting I can implement a selection of layouts for my client and allow my client to choose which lay out is appropriate for the particular content he wants to post.

Theme management is only the tip of the iceberg.  Modx is also into reusing code.  Users can create and store reused portions of HTML and PHP and easily designate an appropriate placeholder for them to be called from a template.  Modx furthers its flexibility by allowing designers to designate template specific variables so their clients can fill out fields when posting content to specify a parameter for a template.

Modx is also expandable.  The Modx support site posts a large selection of extension and plugins to add reusable code to implement everything from breadcrumb menus to gallery management to captcha form protecting.  People can find everything they need to get started from their site at http://modxcms.com/ .  They have a growing community with all kinds of helpful tutorials that can be found through their forums.  Oh, and yes, it is free.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Rotting Apples

Apple has just recently released it's new IOS 4.0 for their i-phone line to coincide the release of the new i-phone.  With all I have been hearing on the whole bumper fiasco and how the new IOS releases are slowing down the performance of the older i-phones I have been thinking on and off on whether I should support Apple as a company.

I have a few Apple devices myself.  I still maintain that the Macbook White has been the best computer I have ever owned.  As for my i-pod touch, I have no complaints on its capabilities as a personal media player though I find myself thinking about jail breaking it to expand upon its use beyond that.  I have used my i-touch to check email and browse some social web sites and I have tried using it as a personal note taker and event planner but the virtual keyboard has made interacting with it in this function not as convenient as it should be.  I find myself entering data on my laptop and using the i-touch to review items of reference. 

The Apple devices I own are overall quality devices and should be since I have spent quite a bit of money to own them.  I find it, however, quite disturbing when I hear that these devices have planned obsolescence in their design.  Apparently after 2-3 year of use Apple expects me to toss a perfectly functioning device over for their new line of devices with minimal improvement in enhancing my experience.

When I bought these devices I had no problems investing money in a quality product but some how this is all moot when the device is suppose to be outdated in a couple of years.  When I spend $500+ on a gadget I expect it to use it for a little more than 2-3 years.  Doing less in my opinion would be no different than the mentality which started the trend of disposable consumerism that produces the products that line all our dollar stores, the only difference being that Steve Jobs makes a butt load of money doing it.  How about Apple be true to its eco-friendly claim and start a recycle program for older phones.  And how about Mac fan boys stop supporting Apple and make good use of your money by keeping that i-phone for another couple of years.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

OMG Finished Half-Life:2

The review I did a month ago on Half-Life:2 does not do it justice.  It's been a month of stress and personal difficulty but through out it all the few hours in the evening I could spend being the bearded messiah of a physicist donning the horn rimmed glasses, HEV, and gravity gun have made these days and nights tolerable.  Gordon Freeman is my newest hero and the sheer fun, scares, and laughs I have had with this game will have me talking about Half-Life:2 as pretty much one of the best games I have played for quite some time.  This game has everything and more that I have experienced in first person shooters, adventure games, and most RPGs.  Last night it all came to an epic end and it was all very satisfying sending the maniacal Dr. Breen to the great dark beyond.  Though I can not wait to continue with Half-Life : Episodes 1 & 2 (and, yes, Half-Life) I have already started another trek through Half-Life: 2 just to make sure I did not miss smelling any roses while taking out Combined, zombies, and head-crabs.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

XBMC

I had recently been contracted to modify the interface of an XBMC installation.  For those who do not know what XBMC is, it is the open source media center that is based on the original Xbox online management software.  The original application allowed online users of the Xbox 360 to access on-line content in a pay per view context.  A community of hobbyist coders have reversed engineered the application and made it open source so anyone can slap together a media PC of choice parts (depending on their budget), hook up their rig to their entertainment center, and watch anything from DVDs, to Bluerays, to on-line media streams, to selections from their library of internet downloaded movies on their large screen LCD/Plasma TV.  They even coded routines to interpret PC remote controllers requests and configured much of their interface to accommodate the tactile nature of a push button remote control.

On top of playing a variety of formats on a PC through its built in player XBMC can also run scripts written in PYTHON to access and filter out links to media on your favorite streaming site and present the site's inventory of media on a stylized menu.  More scripts can also be added to associate backdrops, cover images of music albums and DVDs, and IMDB info of your presented media.

XBMC can also be skinned to your liking and the software provides the user with a system of XML files that can easily be edited to sport the graphics and layout of your choosing.  The system claims to even allow users to add functionality to XBMC; however, the reality is the displays that the user can add are either additional dialogues or overlays which support the main pages of the application.  The ability to add standalone new pages are somewhat limited and in practice stand out as jury rigged pages.  The skinning library is limited to image displays, lists, windows, and buttons but each component has a large inventory of customizable properties.  The interactive components can also be scripted to trigger a robust selection of predefined functions to control or display relevant information and content as well as flag states or conditions during the run time of the application.

XBMC has a community of contributors scripting everything from skin packages, plugins and scripts that target popular media source sites, to 3rd party application launchers for those who want to integrate some gaming into their media center.  XBMC is open source - anyone can download an install package for free or download the sources for modification.  All information can be found on http://xbmc.org/ .

I'd rather be blogging...

I decided to finally look into developing iphone apps.  It was the reason why I bought my Mac Book.  It's been a week and I don't think I have been this frustrated with a learning curve.  I think what is getting to me are the droves of Mac fan boys who claim anybody and their mom can learn how to make phone apps.  If that were true then why is every second tutorial I find not compiling.  Even more frustrating are the constant go to one of the many interface steps and type this code directives that's horribly out of date.  I find many of the tutorials them selves do not explain the mind set of performing the said steps and give me the impression that half these fan boys turned coder merely copy patterns of whole applications and don't have a true understanding of what really is going on.

Just the other day I was on the train and an intern I had just met who was really into iphone app development tried to show me how easy it was to throw together an app.  In 10 minutes he had his iphone simulator pop up on his Mac and pop a view of a bunch of thrown together components which really did not do anything useful.  I turned the question around to him and asked him if he could make a simple form to change the screen display to which he sat and looked around for an example he could base the app on.

I had recently learned Adobe's Flex platform in a stretch of 2 months and after working a total 6 months on the platform I know I can throw together a simple online web app with forms and views and have it store information onto a database in under an hour.  Now that to me would classify as intuitive since other than a a pattern of code I use to code database pulls and the local repository of variables everything is pretty much from the top of my head.

Now maybe I'm getting a little ahead of my self.  Maybe I'm just not of Steve Job's mind set of what easy should be.  But I am pretty sure my mom will never program her own iphone app in my lifetime.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The almost real sonic screwdriver.

I was looking around this morning for an electronics project with a little bit of cool and a little bit of mischief.  My recently draining endeavor/project has left me at least industrious and creative and on top of learning how to program iphone apps I all of the sudden wanted to make a real sonic screw driver.  I had an idea to take a Doctor Who sonic screwdriver toy and outfit it with some additional circuitry that would be obviously suited to a sonic device.

I came across some circuits to jam cellphones and another to turn remote controlled television sets.  The circuits seem relatively easy to put together onto a small board that I could fit into the cramped spaces in my toy other than the fact that I would have to hand wind a couple of inductors (coils) and somehow have to fit a 9 volt DC source (battery) into it as well.

I have not really given up on the affair.  I probably need to dig deep on this project though I impulsively clicked on someone's 60lbs stash of electronics with out inquiring first about the $50 delivery bill.  Luckily, I just got out bid (yay Ebay).  I also came across this little gem this morning when looking into prop replicas:



Now that is a work of craftsmanship -  a fully metal exact scale working replica of the 10th Doctor's screwdriver.  I really need to make more machining friends.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Strictly Ballroom

An old friend of mine had got me to watch this film in the theaters back in the late 90's.  I had no idea who Baz Luhrman was and years later when his hit musical "Moulin Rouge" struck a chord with wannabe star crossed lovers everywhere the connection still did not hit me.  Strictly Ballroom, however, is part of a trilogy of films referred to as Luhrman's "Red Curtain" series which features lovers overcoming obstacles together infront of a backdrop of nostalgic 80's tunes, over the top stage acting, and, of course, a red curtain.  But despite the kitsch melodrama that a good part of the film is, the film is quite enjoyable with a good fairytale-like story of love, triumph, following your heart, and redemption.

Strictly Ballroom is set in New Zealand and focuses on the life of Scott Hastings, son of long time ballroom dancing champions Doug and Shirley Hastings.  Scott's mom runs a local ballroom dancing school with a family friend, Les.  His father has for unknown reasons resided to being the studio maintenance man though is seen throughout the film bumbling through some of his own moves on the floor when no one is around.  Scott himself has become also involved in the family legacy and has shown talent and made a name for himself in the ballroom dancing community.  Though original and determined to come up with his own steps Scott is look down upon by the Ballroom Dancing Federation President, Barry Fife, as an undisciplined upstart who has no place dancing his moves in this established community.

On the eve of what could be his debut year as a champion, his long time partner, Liz Holt, dumps him for a Federation favorite Ken Riley - a full time jacuzzi sales man and chronic drunk.  Their last performance together at a regular season competition had Scott break out of routine and pull her into an array of crowd pleasing moves that pleased everyone but the Federation judges.  Liz as most of Scott's family is tired of Scott's rebelliousness against the Federation and is doubtful that Scott despite his talent will ever be a champion.

At this point we are introduced to Fran.  She is a beginner ballroom dancer studying at her leisure at Shirley's studio.  She floors Scott with her proposal to dance with him learning his steps since it is unheard of in the dance community for a beginner to even suggest such a thing to a professional such as himself.  Scott is unconvinced at Fran's suggestions and just as he was about to dismiss the whole idea Fran blurts out in Spanish, "a life lived in fear is a life half lived" which somewhat grabs the attention of his fearless spirit and shakes him into reconsidering his situation.  Scott being with out partner decides that if he can't get a professional to dance his way then why not just dance with a beginner.  Scott has Fran work through the basics and works out his new routines with her as his family drag him through more disappointing try outs with professional dancers who are also looking for a partner.

In a month's worth of work Scott decides that Fran has to his surprise learned enough to carry out his new routine in competition.  He plans to reveal to his family his new partner at the night of the next regular season competition but before he can he and Fran are told that Scott has a chance to court another champion dancer, Tina Sparkle, whose current partner was announcing his retirement that night.  It was a plan concocted by Les and Barry Fife who both want to see Scott grounded with a proper partner dancing Federation approved steps.

So after the ensuing confusion Scott realizes that dancing with a champion is not what he wants and that he truly wants to dance his moves with a partner who believes in them as much as he does win or lose.  He also realizes that he has somewhat grown fond of Fran who has been slowly changing her physical appearance to reveal the true natural beauty she is.  Scott and Fran dance a tango offstage and realize to the horror of everyone that they are more than just dancing partners.  Fran gets chased off by Shirley who wants to push the thought of Scott dancing with the studio ugly duckling out of everyone's mind but Scott runs off to find Fran.

Fran runs back home where her family is in the middle of a fiesta and just as Scott reveals to her that he intends to dance with her at the championship competition he is abruptly introduced to her strict father.  Scott tries to explain they are dancing partners and nothing more but her father is reluctant to believe his boyish looks.  Scott then insists he is a professional dancer and tries to impress her father and family with his rendition of "Paso Double", traditional Spanish dance.  The crowd has a laugh at his and Fran's performance and angers Scott.  Fran's father then corrects him by performing the true "Paso Double" with the very intensity that Scott feels he needs in his dance.

Fran's grandmother steps in at the end of Fran's father's performance and decides that Scott has the heart but lacks the rhythm.  She attempts to teach him by telling him to listen to what his heart tells him with out fear and slowly Scott realizes what he needs to project the intensity he wants.  Scott and Fran's father finish the evening with their intense rendition of "Paso Double" and find respect for one another in the process.  Fran's father decides afterward to help Scott and Fran prepare for the championships.

The night before the championships Barry Fife surprises Scott at the studio and finally explains to him why everyone has been so hard on his rebelliousness.  Apparently Scott is exactly like his father Doug who had been once the favorite in the dancing community.  But because of his blind ambition to dance his moves over the Federation approved ones he had been side tracked and disgraced.  Everyone fears that if Scott fails just like his father had done so before that the loss would not only be Scott's but his poor father's as well.  Scott in disbelieve runs to his father's locker in the basement and finds memorabilia confirming Barry's story.  Torn at such a revelation he quickly decides to partner with his old partner, Liz (who had also been recently dumped by Ken for the available Tina Sparkle), and dance the competition as a Federation champion contender for his father's sake.

The movie whirls into the next day at the competition with Scott and Liz in their opening waltz.  During the break Scott sees the dejected Fran and tries to explain to her why he had decided so hastily to dance with Liz.  She is off course angry and upset and runs off with Scott in pursuit.  Scott bumps into his father Doug who stops him from catching up with Fran and insists he listens to what he says.  It appears Barry had somewhat lied to him and the only reason why he never became a champion was because Barry had convinced Shirley to leave Doug's hopeless crusade to dance his own moves and to partner with Les.  At this point Scott is about to enter the competition itself with Shirley and Liz struggling to put him onto the floor and Doug holding onto him to listen to his every word at which Doug blurts out "we lived our lives in fear".

Scott runs out to continue his pursuit of Fran.  Meanwhile Les figures out what Barry had intended to do all this time - shame Scott as he had shamed his father out of dancing so the Federation approved moves that he had dedicated his whole life to would never be challenged.  Just as Barry confirms his somewhat evil plan to Les, Scott and Fran finally make their grand entrance onto the floor.  They perform a "Paso Double" inspired dance with an intensity and precision that can not be looked over.  Barry eventually cuts the music before they can complete their performance and calls Scott and Fran to leave the floor.  But just Scott and Fran take their last bow Doug starts to clap out a rhythm and gets the crowd to follow suit.  Scott and Fran complete their performance to the rhythm of the crowd.  Their inspiring performance pull the audience onto the dance floor as we get a glimpse of Scott and Fran kissing.

Like I said really kitsch but enjoyable and you might even find yourself dancing in your living room during the finale.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Millennium

I never liked horror growing up.  I either found myself fueling my fear of the darkness or just found the film itself an insult to my intelligence as story attempts to basically serve me the equivalent of inhuman children stomping on ants for 2 hours.  Luckily as I got into my young adulthood the genre of psychological thrillers had started to take its place as modern horror.  Yes, granted, there are some totally still bent on having sexed up, beautiful teenagers hunted down by senseless masked maniacs, and they are still not fun to me.  But then there were series like Millennium which pit our hero against pure intellectual evil.  I am a true believer in the fine line between genius and insanity and am glad, though at times pop-occult, the series tries to make every villain formidably intelligent to the protagonist, Frank Black (Lance Henriksen).

Millennium was the other series that Chris Carter was running in parallel to his more famous series, the X-Files.  At the time, even though the X-Files can be quite shocking and creepy, Millennium was marketed as a horror equivalent to the X-Files.  The show was about a man named, Frank Black.  He was an ex-FBI investigator who had become quite successful at profiling and tracking the worst serial killers.  At the beginning of the series he becomes burnt out and ultimately frightened into continuing his line of work when a serial killer starts targeting his wife and child.  Frank moves back to his childhood home on the west coast in Seattle where he decides to join a group of consultants who monitor occult events and use their knowledge base to avert the signs of the impending millennial apocalypse.  Frank had been approached by the group not only because of his successful career but also his unique mystical gift to see things from the perspective of a psychotic killer from observing the scene of a crime or a victim's body.  These "psychotic" episodes are presented in the show as quick flashes of surreal footage but is quite effective at explaining what Frank Black's visions are like.

The show portrays Frank as a regular average older man who because of his late in life marriage to his wife, Katherine, feels he is blessed with his 5 year old daughter, Jordan, who he values above everything else in his life.  His wife Katherine, though not fully understanding of his work and his gifts tries to let Frank continue his work as a profiler though as the series progresses she is eventually forced to decide between protecting Jordan and herself from the darkness Frank draws to himself or standing by the man she loves.  Frank is often accompanied on his investigations by several characters who are either members of his local police precinct (where he work previously before working for the FBI) or are members of the mysterious Millennium Group itself.  His contact to the group throughout the series is Peter Watts who is well played by Terry O'Quinn (later to be famed by his riveting portrayal of John Locke on Lost).

The show spanned 3 seasons leading up to Y2K itself but sadly had to be properly ended in an X-Files episode.  As I was brushing up on Millennium facts, however, I fell upon an article that said somehting about a possible Millennium movie to be done with out Chris Carter at the helm.  Interested and hoping it will not be as fail as the latest X-Files flick I will have to settle till then on the complete 3 season series I have on DVD.

Doctor Who Season 5 (Season 31) ends with a "Bang".

I just watched the last Doctor Who episode of Season 5 (31 for those who know of the previous reincarnations of the Doctor before 2004) and was relieved that it was not totally screwed up even after the whole universe of Doctor Who had collapsed and never existed.  Despite how entertaining I found the last 2 episodes to be with relatively good performances from the season 5 cast I felt there were more questions left unanswered which hopefully will not turn into plot holes for the on coming seasons.

**SPOILER ALERT**

Season 5 had started with the fiery introduction of the 11th Doctor whose regeneration from David Tennant's 10th Doctor sends the Tardis spinning out of control and crashing into the life of his newest companion, 7-years-old Amelia Pond.  But before they head off together for a new season of adventures, the Doctor is forced to take the Tardis on a short trip to avert an impending explosion of his crippled time capsule.  The Doctor returns to Amelia 12 years later (in true Timelord fashion) where Amelia has grown into Amy Pond -  a young fiery spirited woman disturbed by her previously brief encounter with the Doctor in her childhood.  Up to this point not only has she been living with a vague, unconfirmed memory of the Doctor, but she has been inadvertently harboring a multidimensional shaped shifting escape convict from an alien world, labeled by its captors as "Prisoner 0".  Amy despite her confusion and disbelief, helps the Doctor avert another earthbound apocalypse perpetrated by the alien convicts warden's efforts to flush out their elusive quarry.  With the alien prisoner returned to its captors the Doctor leaves Amy once again for another short trip in his newly regenerated Tardis and returns to her on the eve of her wedding day 2 years later to whisk her away on the promise of more outlandish adventures.

The first episode sets the underlying story that is the core of season 5's finale.  "Prisoner 0" had escaped its prison through a crack in time and space that had opened into Amy's childhood bedroom.  Similar cracks are seen though out the season often appearing near the Tardis's landing sites.  In episode 9 the Doctor reaches into one of the cracks and pulls out a shattered piece of the Tardis's door indicating an impending future of the Tardis's destruction.  We also hear of an artifact known as the Pandoric first of which is mentioned by "Prisoner 0" in its haunting prophecy: "The Pandoric will open - silence will fall."

Episode 12, The Pandoric Opens, explains what leads to the Tardis's explosion in a whirlwind of events throughout time which brings the Doctor, Amy, and River Song to Roman occupied Britain.  Here an elaborate trap set by every race the Doctor has crossed puts the Doctor out of reach to prevent the Tardis from its destruction with River trapped inside.  Amy is killed (temporarily) by an Auton (a plastic android) retaining her dead boyfriend's (Rory's) memories (killed 2 episodes previously).

In Episode 13, The Big Bang, we see that the universe is not gone yet but is still in the process of fading out and with Earth as the epicenter of the Tardis's explosion (I guess the Tardis is big enough to blow the whole of reality with it) the earth moves on to young Amelia's time (about 2000 years later) as the last instance of reality and Amelia has grown up so far in a world with no stars (since the rest of time and space never existed).  Young Amelia is lead through a bunch of bizarre notes to a museum display of the Pandoric which had been dug up with odd statues of alien beings.  Upon touching the Pandoric itself the ancient box opens to reveal Amy revived from her supposed death in episode 12.

Confused yet?  In any case, I guess with the Timelords really destroyed in season 4.5 by the Doctor himself who's to argue with him about playing with the existence of time and space.  And so after the opening credits scene which I thought was the only tacky "improvement" brought by the new production staff of Doctor Who (Steve Moffat, if you are reading this, please bring back the Season 1-4 Time Vortex), we go back 2000 years before.  Rory (Amy's now Auton boyfriend) is lamenting her death at his plastic hands.  The Doctor appears to him from the relative future (donning a ridiculous fez) giving him instructions to point the sonic screw driver (which he hands to him) at the Pandoric to release his current self.  The Doctor somehow has taken possession of a Vortex Manipulator that River Song used to track the Doctor down in Ancient Britain (I still can't figure out when she let go of it in the fist place in episode 12).  The future Doctor pops back into the relative future leaving Rory to rescue him from the Pandoric.

Rory opens the Pandoric to find the Doctor unaware of the events that lead Rory to release him and figures that it was just part of the brilliant plan he will come up with later to save the universe.  He finds the Vortex Manipulator on the floor near the Pandoric (once again no idea how it gets there but I vaguely remember him maybe pulling it off River in episode 12 for no apparent reason) and figures the only way to save Amy is to put her in the Pandoric and bring her dead self to meet her self in the future so that the Pandoric might heal her fatal wounds from the living genetic imprint of herself 2000 years from now.  The Doctor and Rory place her inside to meet her 2000 years later via the Vortex Manipulator but Rory decides that it's unsafe for Amy to be left alone for 2000 years.  Now that he is himself in a plastic body he remains with the Pandoric as Amy's guardian for 2000 years.

The Doctor jets to the future via the Vortex Manipulator to meet with Amy as Amelia who had just touched the Pandoric sets into motion the revival sequence to save Amy.  And just when you think things are bordering on ridiculous we get a bizarre plot device explanation of what the Pandoric is.  It turns out that it is the ultimate vault with technology powerful enough to keep someone (or something) in stasis till the end of time.  It apparently as well can preserve the memory of a universe in a state of collapse from being erased from existence.  So after the Doctor reunites with a revived Amy, Amelia, Rory (who managed to survive 2000 years) and River (who had been trapped in a time loop as a last ditch effort of the Tardis to save River until the Doctor could retrieve her via Vortex Manipulator) and a Dalek (who manages to use the light of the Pandoric to restore itself from being erased from history) the Doctor figures the only way to fix things would be to send the Pandoric into the sun which so happens to be in this alternate reality the slowly exploding Tardis.  But of course to do so with out some risk would just be too easy for a Doctor Who episode.  Since he would be the one piloting the Pandoric (strapped to the Vortex Manipulator)  he would risk being erased from time itself so that time and space would get a "reboot" of its older self (and hopefully revert back).

The Doctor takes the heroic leap and finds himself afterwards rewinding back on his time line unseen almost by everyone but Amy.  The Doctor tries to get Amy to remember him as a last ditch effort to save him from being erased several times and finally manages to relay the 7 year old Amelia Pond the story of how he had started his life's journey by stealing the Tardis.  But because Amelia is heavily asleep the Doctor realizes this is all he can do before walking from existence.

Fast forward to Amy's wedding to Rory.  And, of course, since the cracks through time never happened Amy's missing parents (she had been mysteriously orphaned and living with her aunt in episode 1) were back in her life.  Rory was also saved from being shot by a lizard person and suck out of existence by time/space crack so he was as well reverted from being made into plastic android.  All is well except for the fact that the Doctor had been erased from time itself.  Then miraculously River Song appears (uh with out Vortex Manipulator?) and gives Amy the empty journal which would have been filled with the adventures she would have with the Doctor had he existed (how is this all possible?).  The journal triggers her memory of the Doctor which was strong enough to bring him and the Tardis back into existence.

So all is well again but of course (to keep you ready for the next season) there are way more questions unanswered as the whole of what seems to be a successful season gets tossed into a overly priced DVD collection that I will regrettably have to own in the next few weeks.  First of all the one big question which the Doctor has unanswered himself what or who had this all happened in the first place.  Something had purposely blew the Tardis up for a reason and the Doctor intends to find out who.  The whole question of who River Song is is still unanswered (even to the Doctor) but she hints that will be regrettably answered soon in his own personal timeline.  Then there's the other loose ends like the "new" series of Daleks he had inadvertently revived in episode 3 and made a brief show in the finale where apparently River Song had mercilessly dispatched the last of them.  If the cracks in time never happened and everything has apparently re-winded to the beginning of the season then hypothetically the events leading to their revival never happened?

On a side note I do like that we get another season with the same cast.  The 13 episodes just seem to be too short for any real character development with season 1 (27) with Christopher Eccelston being almost an exception.  I like Matt Smith and Karen Gillian.  But I really like Arthur Darvill (Rory) and am glad they took a different route on his character development in comparison to the other "sort of" boyfriend in the Doctor Who universe, Mickey Smith.  I really like that Rory is a stand-up guy and is somewhat successful at the end of this series at not only getting the girl but earning the respect of the Doctor and hopefully becoming part of the next season's Tardis crew.  In the Doctor's words on Rory, "The Boy who waited 2000 years - good on you."

You can catch the whole Doctor Who Season 5 on the Sci-Fi Network (or its local equivalent), on BBC-1, and sadly for the rest of us on most popular TV show torrent repositories.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Half-Life 2

So after a lot of egging on from a gaming friend and after watching all 28 episodes of Freeman's Mind and after Steam released the title on the Mac platform I finally got around to playing Half-Life 2.  Half-Life (the original) was as well downloaded but I'm still on the extended introductory tram ride through the Mesa Research Facility.

In any case Half-Life 2 is a standalone first person shooter which in my books (and a whole lot of hardcore gamers) is a definite "must have" in the repertoire.  The game is still a technological advancement in the gaming experience offering a smooth 3D rendered experience in various indoor and outdoor environments, a great alien infestation/survival story, and a realistically rendered cast of "intelligent" computer controlled characters.

The game play can be set to a low difficulty which means the enemy characters are not impossibly hard to kill but you still have to deal with the puzzle like challenges presented through out the progress of the game.  Even more so, it's not a time dependent game leaving you to explore the beautiful environments the game has to offer and at times (almost surprisingly) rewarding your exploring nature with secret caches of am-munitions and health reviving items.  Certain levels of the game have you commandeer vehicles which thankfully is not too difficult but I find detracts from exploring every corner of the large outdoor environments of the game.

As for the story, the game is a mash of typical alien infestation movies and big brother like scenarios; though nothing original it is still well thought out and at times pokes fun at the genres.  I do not understand, however, why everyone thinks Gordon Freeman (the playable character) is such a god send when all he has done (with reference to the first game) is literally climb out of a hole and live to tell about it.  It is still quite amusing to be heralded by the non-playable characters and have the array of weapons at hand to show for it (where does Gordon keep all those guns on him?).

Half-Life 2 is fun.  I like that the game play and progress is not dependent on trigger skills and armchair reflexes.  The game is (to me) more focused on being an interactive fiction that you can pick up every now and then and blow away some aliens.  The game as well is highly re-playable and I often find myself re-playing a scenario in game when I figure a way to get through a situation with less liberal use of my ammo.  You can get Half-Life 2 on Steam for about 10$ USD.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Freeman's Mind

Freeman's Mind is specific type of webshow known as "machinima".  It is essentially using a video game's control and displays along side a scripted dialogue to act out a story or music video.  Some games are more suited for this type of animation - mostly, games that give you enough freedom on your playable character to act out a story line that's not in the game essentially.  First person shooters such as Half-Life are perfect since there is not a lot of cutscenes and a lot of non player character interaction is done through the intelligent AI of the Valve's Half-Life engine.  Characters aren't scripted to interact with you but will interact with you when the opportunity arises (like being with in the immediate vicinity of them or toggling them for dialogue).

Freeman's Mind could more or less be a walk through of Valve's award winning game, Half-Life; however, the effort put into coordinating some entertaining monologues along side playing Half-Life itself is quite hilarious and (in my books) classify this as a machinima well worth watching all its 28 episodes (so far).  Each episode go for about 10 minutes and is suppose to be the mind of the playable character Gordon Freeman as he tears through the labyrinth of the Black Mesa complex and its collection of dimensional aliens and military operatives sent to eliminate indiscriminately the alien infestation as well as the Black Mesa researchers (including Freeman himself).  Contrary to the Freeman who is heroically performing this super-human task of surviving his way out of the Black Mesa complex the monologue plays Freeman to an obtuse, self serving asshole, put into this survival situation by his oppressive employers and incompetent work mates.  To the actor's (or script writer's) credit the dialogue seems totally ad-lib but believable and never once through all 28 episodes does the actor break character except for one, episode 27, where the actor decided to perform the whole 10 minute dialogue as a plundering pirate.

Freeman's Mind is quite entertaining and puts a humorous spin to the story behind Half-Life for any one who has or has not played Half-Life.  You can check out all 28 episodes at www.acursedfarms.com or on YouTube searching for "Freeman's Mind".

Monday, May 24, 2010

Steam on Mac

I have waited a couple of weeks before writing this one up.  I wanted the hype to die down a bit and give an objective view of this topic.  Overall all Steam coming to the Mac platform is a good move for everyone since gone (again) are the days of shopping the latest PC titles at your local tech store.  Steam is my one stop shop for a large selection of gaming titles.  The system as a distribution center for gaming purchases is successful on both platforms since they provide an easy web experience to review, select, purchase, and install game titles in one app.  Their selection at least on the windows platform is quite varied and have a large selection of not only popular titles but titles which got looked over in the shadow of big companies and big franchise releases.  Steam also carries quite a few titles under the independent category and provides a venue where for a very reasonable percentage of sales provide a storefront for the independent software providers.

As for the distribution on Mac the titles are not up to the hype they've lead me to believe which I should not be really surprised since Mac is definitely a productivity machine.  What I am hoping though is that game developers will push more Mac releases with now a cheaper means to distribute Mac compiled software where as before having to publish Mac titles (box and all) would have meant sure losses.  I am also hoping that at least more adventure titles become available and the full catalog of Valve games (the makers of Steam) becomes properly ported to the Mac platform as they promised.  The Valve titles alone on Mac would make my Mac gaming experience worth while.

Prism - My Own Custom Browser App (Well, Almost)

I have been researching some ideas to create a simple no-frills (actually no controls) browser window with out reinventing the wheel.  I want to basically open a URL in a window and have what ever appears at the URL to be rendered in a window with none of your typical browser controls and simply rely on the site's navigation to get around.  It so happens to also coincide with some issues I have encountered at work since I work on Flex applications that have no use for the native browser navigation buttons.

I seem to have found a solution in a Firefox development called Prism which can be installed either as a plugin to Firefox or as a standalone application.  Prism allows you to convert a URL into a standalone application on your desktop.  Essentially what it does is that it takes the URL and wraps it in a package that allows you to view the URL in a "no-distractions" browser upon a click of a shortcut.  This is becoming more recently desired since more and more web applications are now having a more "self-contained" look about them and no longer require back/forward buttons or a URL field to navigate around them.  In fact, the use of the native browser navigation often causes problems for web developers since this can lead to security issues regarding form scripting.

I was hoping there would be a command line creation script to create the packages Prism needs to run the URL but I suppose its nothing a scripter like me can not figure out.  In the meanwhile I have setup some webmail sites my mail browser can not connect to at work and left them as stand alone apps on my desktop.  I have also setup my work test server as well as a Prism app.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Google Pacman

Hat's off to Google's banner that commemorated one of video game's innovations by embedding a playable applet of Pacman in celebration of its 30th birthday.  Should give it a try before searching the latest in government conspiracies and of furry costume porn.  My hi-score is 9034 and I had completed one level before I realized that you can use the cursor keys instead of the mouse - GG.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

24 Hour Party People (OST)

Perhaps (IMO) to be renamed "The History of Factory", the album to its movie namesake is perhaps a good cross-selection of Factory's best productions.  I have never experienced a soundtrack that is as enjoyable with out its movie references.  This soundtrack has a good selection of performances of Factory's bands, a couple of modern renditions and live performances of their more recognizable hits, and a couple of hits that the movie claims to have inspired Tony Wilson to create Factory.  On the performance list are names such as Joy Division, the Buzzcocks, New Order, Happy Mondays, and the Sex Pistols.  Even if you haven not seen the movie if you are looking for some retro-alternative compilation look up this soundtrack.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Wire

The Wire is an epic police drama that spans 5 seasons.  It follows the careers of a group of detectives from the narcotics and homicide divisions of the Baltimore Police Department as well as the lives of the criminals and city officials that their investigations touches.  What probably makes this a unique series is the raw honesty each episode is told in and how it focuses on the problems of maintaining law and order all stemming from the apathy and corruption that is deep seated in the running of a major North American city.

The story of The Wire begins with Jimmy McNulty, a hotshot career detective played by Dominic West.  After watching another drug thug get off from a routine murder conviction he is called in by a concerned judge on his thoughts on what should have been a routine conviction.  Jimmy explains to the judge how an up and coming drug gang that the accuse had been connected to had control of most of the drug distribution in the city and were able to buy off witnesses and supply their man with a top notch mob lawyer.  Appalled by how narcotics did not even have knowledge of the drug ring the judge sets in motion the events which lead to a combined department task force of homicide and narcotics detectives to investigate the Barksdale drug ring.

This uncomfortable marriage of the already under-resourced departments bring together a motley group of detectives comprising a mix of overlooked talents and disgraced cops with Jimmy being the obvious rogue.  Heading the task force is Cedric Daniels - the straight shooting narcotics commander with a few skeletons in his career closet.  His right hand girl is Shakima Greggs - a tough narcotics investigator with a hunger for the thrill of the hunt and a taste for fast women.  Lester Freamon is an older talented investigator who previous tenacity put him on the sidelines for going after politically protected targets.  Ellis Carter is a young career hungry cop who is in constant struggle between looking for his big break that would land him a prestigious promotion and being a compassionate "do-right" cop.  Carter is often accompanied by Thomas "Herc" Hauk a bumbling tough guy cop whose constant bad career decisions (in contrast to Carter) push him further from the respect he looks for from his colleagues.  Rolland "Prez" Pryzbylewski is an intellect forced into service by his father in law who is a prominent commanding officer in the Baltimore Police Department.  Jimmy also often drags into the picture his homicide drinking buddy Detective William "Bunk" Moreland whose admirable dedication to his job is offset by his infidelity to his wife.   The series also bring in and out of view other characters who help, hinder, or are the targets of the main detectives of the series. 

Most of the series follow the investigations of the drug gangs that plague the city of Baltimore and the corruption which blights any successful attempt to unroot their influence on the decaying city.  With great acting and a no-pulled-punches look at the lives of this intricately connected cast of characters America comes close to providing a thought provoking series that was mostly being delivered by BBC imports.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Guild

Felecia Day was once an out of job actress with a few guest appearances on Josh Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer series and similar TV roles.  She then played World of Warcraft and got to the point where she knew she had to stop and do something productive with herself to pay her bills.  So as an actress in LA she started writing a script about the one thing she enjoyed doing at the time - MMO gaming.  The Guild is humorous look at the in game and out of game lives of massive multi-player online role-playing gamers (MMPORGs) loosely based on Felecia's experience with World of Warcraft.  The show features fives fictitious gamers from very different walks of life who play some fictitious on-line role playing game together in a guild - a team of players who have dedicated their current game time to helping each other progress through the common game they play. 

The show is mostly written from the perspective of Syd Sherman (AKA Codex) who is also played by Felecia Day.  She is a 30 something prodigy violinist who had just lost her job at a local orchestra and has become a hermit with her online gaming as her only social outlet.  In game she plays her guild's healer (the fantasy equivalent of a combat medic).  She is supported by four other players from very different walks of life.  There is Herman (AKA Vork) who also is a hermit living off of his dead father's pension and is the guild's leader.  There's Clara (AKA Clara), a stay at home negligent mother of three and even more negligent wife, who is the guild's magician.  There's Sujan (AKA Zaboo), a "Hin-Jew" college student and guild warlock whose talents include cyber stalking and imposing his affections inappropriately on Syd.  Tinkerballa (AKA Tinkerballa) the guild's ranger is in real life a sulking Japanese tart and pre-med student.  Finally there's Simon (AKA Bladezz) the guild's rogue and machiavelli character who is in real life a street smart player, charmer, and ex-child model.

The shows are originally web-based and episodic and usually run for 5 minutes an episode following a story arc each season mainly about Syd and her guild mates going through some crisis that forces them work together (and meet) outside of their in game lives.  We actually never see the characters interact in game but instead get the anecdotes and dialogue that would normally have meaning just in the game. 

The show has gain popularity since it's webisodic release finding many fans into gaming and geek culture.  The fourth season featured geek star, Wil Wheaton, as the guild leader of a rival guild.  The show overall is well written and funny even for those not into (or aware of) the gaming culture.  The show was originally distributed on their web site, www.watchtheguild.com, via YouTube links but was then picked up on its second season by Microsoft for exclusive premiere viewing on Microsoft's XBox online network as free downloadable content.  The season would only be available on the show website once the season finished release and are as well released for purchase in DVD sets from their site and through I-Tunes.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Legacy of Kain: Soulreaver (I)

Legacy of Kain is actually two series of related RPGs.  The Soulreaver series contrary to the Blood Omen series follows the adventures of Raziel, a fallen vampire lord turned wraith manipulated by the supernatural forces that spin the fictitious world of Nosgoth.  Raziel was once a lieutenant of Kain, A vampire king.  He and his brethren ruled the vampire activities for thousands of years.  Every now and again each of the vampires (including Kain) would undergo a metamorphosis that would endow them with even greater vampiric powers.  Raziel had been the first to surpass his King and in doing so he was exiled and sentenced to death.  Kain had Raziel thrown into a deep lake which to most vampires would incinerate them like acid on flesh.  Raziel was destroyed but his remains wash up in the chambers of a subterranean deity (known as the Elder God) who restores Raziel as a wraith.  He sends Raziel on a quest for vengeance on Kain who the Elder God considers an abomination to the cycle of life which he maintains.  Raziel now feeds on spectral energy such as the newly severed souls of the freshly killed lives, or the soul energy of a felled undead.  Since Raziel's life force was once that of a vampire's Raziel can absorb the powers of his felled brethren - especially useful since he is being specifically sent to the living world to hunt down all of his brethren and Kain as to return them to the Wheel of Fate the Elder God is the personification of.

The gameplay is third person (over the shoulder) perspective.  You play Raziel who you must navigate through 3D freestyle seamless environments which are first interwoven by caves and roadways and tunnels but as you pass certain waypoints you activate a portal that Raziel can travel back and forth from.  You are free to go anywhere but are usually guided by accomplishing puzzles and unlocking more of the world.  Your search for your brethren and Kain will push you through puzzles, respawning encounters and boss fights with key characters of the game's story.  After each boss fight Raziel absorbs new powers that either allow him to deal with more dangerous enemies or allow him access to more parts of the world.  He must also as well search for artifacts that boost or extend his life energy.

Perhaps the neatest thing about being undead is that you can't die.  When Raziel's life energy falls below empty Raziel disappears back into the realm of the undead where he must fend of malicious spirits and feed on felled soul energy to phase back into the realm of the living.  Furthermore, if he is defeated even in the realm of the spirit, he is reborn back in the chamber of the Elder God where he must travel back to his last point of progress - hence the waypoints become even more important in saving travel time.  Raziel can also shift back into the realm of the spirit at the players own choosing and use to his advantage the differing properties of both realities.

The interesting brainteasing environment puzzles are well balance with the equally challenging button mashing combat that can be unleashed in many satisfying ways.  If you are perhaps not so into incinerating your foes you can as well grab spear-like implements from the environment to whack and impale your quarry.

Raziel's first journey through Nosgoth ends with a promise of more soul sucking adventures to come as Kain escapes Raziel's clutches through a time portal.  You can find Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (I) on Ebay for less than $20 USD.

The Mirror's Edge

I hate racing games and I do not have the reflexes to enjoy games that involve precision jumping onto precariously high places.  But I do enjoy this game which has both.  The Mirror's Edge is a slick well done FPS style game that involves running, jumping, and scaling through a realistically rendered futuristic cityscape.  You play Faith - a futuristic courier who contrary to real couriers (who run the streets) run the roof tops of high rises.  The couriers are portrayed as an underground network that corporations use to deliver sensitive packages that could otherwise be intercepted by rival corporations or the law.

Faith has just returned from being out of action from a fall she sustained previously.  But just as she gets her legs back her sister who is a police officer is framed for the murder of a prominent mayor candidate.  She must now rely on her connections to the underground to find out why her sister has been framed and avoid the police who is out to arrest her as her sister's suspected accomplice.

The game has an FPS gameplay but no weapon inventory.  Faith instead can use her speed to quickly disarm her pursuers and use their weapons but she must throw away the weapon to perform her acrobatic feats.  Other than that the game's focus is on basically getting to the next cut scene anyway you can.

The graphics are very slick and opposite to many 3D games the cutscenes are actually cel shaded like a comic book where as the gameplay is realistically rendered.  Both are very effective at delivering the story behind the game that is somewhat a complicated conspiracy plot.  The visuals are very (very) bright and contrasted of sunlit solid basic colours and bright white.  On the default settings of the game pathways are indicated by solidly coloured (usually red) structures that players can easily spot amidst avoiding gunfire and the the adrenaline rush one gets running through this game.

The Mirror's Edge is a console port (from XBox).  For some odd reason the default mapping of the controls was reversed for my PC-gamepad and I spent a couple of hours finding and successfully editing.  I, however, am still out on which control method is better.  I find my self constantly switching between "noob-stick" and keyboard and at one point had the gamepad on my left hand to control motion and mouse on my right hand for precise targeting and combat.  You'll have to find your own comfort zone on this one but I am quite surprised controls for a well produced game can be so awkward.  Further more the game apparently has the down button for forward and an up button for backward - not an easy thing for even anyone playing on a gamepad.  Luckily these are all quite fixable with some config file editing.  The Mirror's Edge can be found on Steam for $29 USD.

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger

This is book one of what fans of Stephen King call his magnum opus.  The Dark Tower is an epic series of books written by Stephen King inspired by the poem "The Childe, Rolland, to the Dark Tower Came".  The series is not your usual monster horror novels King has become famous for cranking out.  The series is an actual fantasy epic.  It follows the journey of Rolland Deschain in his desperate quest to save his dying home of Mid-World.  To do so he must find the legendary Dark Tower - a nexus of universes that might hold the key to reversing the decay of time and space that has ravaged his homeward and thrown his civilization into chaos.

The series starts by introducing Rolland Deschain.  He is a lone man crossing a barren plain armed with two sandalwood handled six shooters and dressed in the image of what we recognize as that of a cowboy on the western 19th century North American frontier.  We are told he seeks the man in black who goes by the name Walter because he would know what had destroyed his childhood home. 

We are not given much more about Rolland before he comes across a hermit tending to his meager crops.  He invites Rolland for diner at which Rolland confesses to killing everyone in a nearby town called Tull.  He explains that he had angered the fanatical priest who controlled the town and upon getting ready to take his leave they attacked him thus forcing his epic dispatch of every citizen.  He adds that perhaps the man in black that he had followed to the town was somewhat responsible for the attack.  The next morning Rolland with out incident leaves the hermit to continue his pursuit of Walter.

The next part of his journey wears at his strength as the desert dries him of most of his water supply.  He happens upon an abandoned town where he meets Jake Chambers - a boy who was killed in present day New York of our world.  He saves Rolland by finding him much needed water and takes to Rolland like an orphan takes to a father figure.

At this point through flashbacks we get a quick synopsis of Rollands youth.  He was the son of a king who held court with an army of law bringers known as Gunslingers.  They lead disciplined lives and learn the ways of the gun and the laws they were to uphold.  He grew up early - enraged by Martin (A man who was an adviser to his father and of whom Walter is working for) who had taken his mother as a lover he faced his test of manhood a year before he was expected.  His father who was somewhat aware of a conspiracy afoot sends Rolland on a quest to survey the outer rim of the kingdom to inconspicuously keep him away from the hidden dangers plaguing his court.

Rolland and Jake continue on the path to the man in black but not before they are chased down and cornered by undead in a mine.  Rolland is then faced with saving Jake from falling into an underground chasm or follow Walter before he loses his trail.  Rolland chooses to follow the man in black and Jake falls into the chasm.

Rolland finally reaches the man in black who states that he himself is only a pawn for the man who controls the Dark Tower and that he is there to convey a message by reading his fate on a deck of Tarot cards.  Walter tells him that his quest will lead him to the Dark Tower depicted by the Tower card at the center of the reading.  He also tells him he will not be alone and will be accompanied by three characters depicted by the three cards: the Lady of Shadows, the Prisoner, and the Sailor.  The man in black continues by trying to discourage Rolland in that his journey might be in vein and poses to him that he is insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  He gives Rolland the choice to turn back and live the remaining years in peace or to continue knowing the troubles to come.  Rolland choses to continue at which he falls into a deep sleep.

When Rolland awakes it is ten years later.  Still at the same place Walter read his fate a skeleton which he can only assume was the man in black sits across the ashes of the fire they sat at.  Rolland gets up and continue his journey towards a distant but visible shoreline.  Book one of the Dark Tower series ends here with a promise of his epic journey to continue in the next book of the series - The Drawing of Three.  If you are still not convince that these books are a "must read" then I suggest you at least read this book before you make that decision.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sympathy for Mister Vengeance

Most of us who enjoy that occasional Tarantino flick enjoys that occasional hit of violence that he throws in which (usually) is in context and thus is experienced and easily forgotten with a following moment of absurdity.  This Korean film is quite the opposite of that.  Sympathy for Mister Vengeance is what would have happened if Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs went with out the absurdity.  I compare the two films when I talk about either to my friends because on some level they are very similar.  The one similarity Reservoir Dogs has with Sympathy for Mister Vengeance is that they are both a story about a crime gone wrong.  Sympathy takes the story further, however, by throwing in a story of how very few can avoid the road to death and ruin when you walk on the path of vengeance.

The story is starts with a deaf youth, Ryu, who has a world of trouble.  His sister needs a kidney and he gets laid off from his day job at the local factory.  The doctors tell him he is not a match to his sister so he can't give his own kidney to save her life.  So he hires an underground group who for 10,000,000 wons (Korean money) and one of his kidneys promise to give him a kidney his sister can use.  He undergoes a gruesome procedure and lives to see the black market thugs do not meet their end of the deal.  To add even more grief, the hospital soon after informs him that they had found a matching kidney but would cost him the money the thugs stole from him.

He and a close friend of his, Yeoung-mi (who is connected with an activist leftist group), come up with a plan to kidnap the daughter of the owner of the factory he is laid off from.  They prudently decide that doing this to his former employer would only throw suspicion on Ryu, so they change their plans to instead kidnap the daughter of another factory owner, Dong-jin, who is close friends to his former employer.  Ryu executes his plan.  He leaves the girl with his sister while he recovers the ransom money.  To cover his tracks he sends the girl's distraught father on a wild goose chase and gets him to drop the ransom money in an easily recoverable spot.

When he returns to his sister's apartment he is too late to realize his sister who had found out his mad scheme had taken her life not wanting to be a burden to him.  Heart broken, Ryu sadly takes his sister's body (with his prisoner in tow) to their favourite spot when they were young and buries her beside a river in the country.  Things, however, get even worse for Ryu from there.  The girl he had kidnapped had accidentally slipped into the river and drowned.  Ryu deaf to her screams for help was too late to save her.

Dong-jin is brought the sad news of his daughter's death and we are treated to 15 minutes of eerie footage of his maddening grief.  He swears to her ghost that he would not stop till her death had been avenged.  In the meanwhile Ryu has taken Yeoung-mi as his lover now that he is no longer innocent to the world.  They use the money to start over the best they can but Ryu still is not satisfied with his sister's demise.  He and Yeoung-mi come up with a plan to get even with the thugs who stole his 10 000 000 wons and his kidney.  Their plans once again work but too well and Ryu ends up killing the thugs only to leave more trails that would lead back to Ryu and Yeoung-mi.

Dong-jin has become obsessed with hunting down his daughter's killers.  His tenacity eventually leads to Yeoung-mi who he tortures to death and only gets from her a warning that her activist connections would avenge her death.  Ryu return to her apartment to only get a glimpse  of her body being taken away by the cops.  Distraught, he now seeks to avenge her death.  He waits long hours outside the Dong-jin's apartment who oddly enough is doing the same thing at his apartment.  Ryu returns home after a long wait for his lover's killer only to fall victim to Dong-jin's booby trap. 

Dong-jin takes Ryu out to the river where his daughter was found.  He tells Ryu that he understands that Ryu is a good man but he must kill him to be at peace.  He slices Ryu's heels and drowns him in the river.  Dong-jin then dismembers Ryu's body but before he can bury the remains he is approached by Yeoung-mi's activist connections and is brutally stabbed and left to die by his car and Ryu's body.

The movie was definitely an intense story and left me quite disturbed for days after watching.  The movie is not for the faint of heart and has very dark and very graphic scenes of violence and torture.  As I mentioned I compare this movie to Reservoir Dogs which shares with it the intensity of violence and the fact that they are both the story of a crime gone horribly wrong.  If you did enjoy the drama of Reservoir Dogs and can get past the notch up of violence and the subtitles definitely give this one a watch.