Saturday, December 20, 2008

Windows for Linux/Power users

I am not really a Linux guru and I am not a Windows power user. However, I am comfortable in either environment. I do several things in each that make my life easier, and in general I try to make the two environments similar when I configure them. Below are some useful links I have collected for doing some snazzy/slick things with Windows that might not be for the average user. These are especially useful if you are a Linux guy working in a Windows world.
  • Microsoft released some power toys for Windows that includes a desktop management system and some other nice tweaks.
  • You can try X Mouse to get X11 mouse behavior in Windows. Highlighting cut-and-paste is useful.
  • I have never used them, but MinGW is a collection of free header files and libraries for compiling windows programs that run without external dlls, such as cygwin's.
  • Xming has been recommended to me as a good X-windows program for windows. Here are some notes. I tend to use whatever I find installed on my computer already.
  • Last but not least, here are a few other people's lists of useful tools and tricks for those living in a Windows world:

Monday, December 15, 2008

Killer Bunnies Unleashed

A couple years ago my dad got me Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot for Christmas. I thought "Haha, very funny" and then proceeded to get myself, my family, my in-laws, and most of friends addicted. It is a crazy fun game, although it is also a bit complex. The Quest is over, and the Journey to Jupiter has begun.

My parents came over last night for dinner and since they weren't going to see me again before my birthday I opened my present from them: Killer Bunnies and the Journey to Jupiter!

That's the box. It's a pretty big box. Here is some of the stuff that was inside:

They have obviously learned a few things from Quest. The box has room for the future expansions (my quest set fills the original box completely with the cards and then fills the onyx box completely with the manuals, dice, and extra stuff). Also, they gave the vouchers (used for change) right at the beginning. Here is a picture of what makes Jupiter so special:

I think something my dad says really captures the feeling. It went something like this: "Gee, you have the cards and then a board game on top of it! That shouldn't be too complicated!" He was being sarcastic. It will be a while before we have time to learn how to play (probably this weekend), and then it will probably be many times after that before we finally get it right.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Every hero has its tragic flaw

When I first started to hear about NBC's hit TV show Heroes I was pretty sure it was something I would like. For starters, I do more than my fair share of hero worshiping. I idolize those who are make tough choices that affect many people for good. There are probably some deep psychological issues there, but that is not the subject of this post. I enjoy science fiction. My favorite book is Ender's Game, I am a bit of a Star Wars nut, and I enjoy Star Trek. I even like the somewhat more obscure stuff, like the Riverworld series. Heroes is science fiction, and the premise is pretty good science fiction. Although Heroes tries to distance itself from X-men and other comic book heroes, there are some obvious similarities and I enjoy comic book movies. Lastly, I have always been a TV bum. You might not know this because since going off to college I try to avoid TV like the plague. However, I'll watch pretty much anything that doesn't offend my sensibilities.

Since I was in graduate school and since I did not want to get sucked into TV again, I did not start watching Heroes in the beginning. However, after some prodding from my father-in-law I succumbed and watched starting halfway through the first season. The plot was intriguing and the show was riveting. Although that first season ended weakly, I had high hopes for season two. I did not dislike season two as much as some, but I did not feel the excitement that was there in season one. A little something was missing. I just watched my first season three episode last Monday. I had been following along on Wikipedia, but my schedule (and crummy TV antenna) has prevented me from watching it. I have to say I probably won't watch it again this next Monday and they'll have to do something for me to come back when they return.

What happened? Upon reflection, Heroes is a series that is doomed to fail. Maybe there is a way out that I have not seen. I really hope so. However, there are several clear and obvious reasons why the things which made season one so good will not ever be able to be brought back:

  • Ordinary people with extraordinary abilities. The problem with that tag line is that the people stopped being ordinary by the end of season one. The whole "coming to grips with your powers" issue only works once. After that, you have the grip. The show has tried to recreate this by making people lose their powers, but that does not work more than once or twice. Now it is just a gimmick. The solution is to bring in new characters, but how does one make room for these new ordinary people when the audience loves the old characters? They tried to bring in new characters simultaneous with carrying the new ones along in season two, but people responded negatively in general.
  • Sylar, Peter, Hiro, the Haitian, and Arthur. Some of the characters are just too strong. The answer or cause of any problem is one of them. They can cancel each other out and create interesting conflicts, but anybody else verse them just is not interesting. People just want to see Sylar and Peter go at it. Hiro never really does anything, because he can actually do anything. Who knows what the Haitian's agenda is and Arthur. . . well, hopefully we don't have to talk about Arthur ever again. By creating characters which are so powerful, the rest of the cast becomes less interesting side-trips.
  • Just kidding. I stopped caring about Star Trek: Voyager when too many of the episodes never really happened. In other words, something would happen at the end of an episode (or worse, a multi-episode story) that would undo the major events of the story. This happens too much in Heroes as well, and has steadily gotten worse. I enjoy the flashback episodes, and the future episodes can be a lot of fun (my favorite episode is still the future episode from season one). However, going back and forth in excess and not having continuity makes things hard to follow and, honestly, not worth following. Also, taking away powers and then giving them back, or killing someone and then reviving them, only work as rare plot devices and then only with certain characters. If the audience can't rely on anything, they will pick another show. On the other hand, the super-powerful characters make it hard to do anything but kill each other and bring each other back.

I think that is all I am going to say for now. I really liked Heroes, and I will follow the story line for however long it goes on. I might not watch it again, though. It is on a suicide run. It has been since the beginning. I do not see any way to fix it. Hopefully the producers do. Maybe then I could watch again.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

A Google Doc Presentation

My wife and I already use Google Docs to do our budget and keep track of our email address book for yearly Christmas cards. I also use Google docs to keep track of a number of other things. It is also integrated with Gmail, so you can open up office attachments from Gmail directly into Google Docs.

I have done spreadsheets and documents, but I have not done forms. Tonight I uploaded a powerpoint presentation to see how it would turn out. You can see it here:

Obviously, the formatting did not carry over completely correctly. I'm sure I could tweak the text to make it look as nice in Google as it does in Powerpoint, but that really was not the point.

Of course, I'm not really sure what the point really is. Maybe to share Kruskal's algorithm and connected components with the world? Nope.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Hyrule is safe, yet again

Last Saturday night I finally beat Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. My wife gave it to me as a graduation present at the end of August. She had remembered, but I had forgotten, that when we first started hearing about the Wii I had pointed to this game as awesome. That was before the Wii ever came out. Between then and when we finally got our Wii, I had forgotten about how cool this game is supposed to be. My summary judgement: this game lives up to the expectations, although there were some/many places were it gets tedious.

I was dumbfounded by how long it took me to get to the first level. For those familiar to the series, that is also time spent with the minimum number of hearts. It was a few hours before I actually crossed the threshold of the forest temple. Mind you, it was not all safe/boring story sequences. A lot of the time is spent fighting, and the most tedious parts are spent after discovering the game has rudely turned you into a wolf with an annoying riding imp called Midna. Think "Navi" only worse. 

It takes a while to get used to being a wolf. I spent the first area as a wolf repeatedly falling off the castle while giant bird things squawked at me. However, shortly after that the game teaches you a multi-monster attack that greatly simplifies feral life. It takes a few serious battles to master the attack, but then being a wolf is never really a problem again. 

Zelda games have a habit of having things happen where it is not at 
all clear what the player is supposed to do. This is not necessarily the player's fault, and the in-game help (a.k.a. annoying imp Midna) is not always that helpful. Normally these  things happen during boss fights, where going back out to see what you missed is no longer an option. It wouldn't help anyway. An early example is the fight shown in the picture to the right. The evil, boar riding goblin Link has been chasing suddenly traps Link on the bridge and a joust ensues. If the boar spears Epona (Link's horse) then you have to start over. It then took me a good half an hour to figure out how to do any damage to the guy (accelerate to the right and then slight in with a swing). A very frustrating experience. You have to fight the guy a few more times during the game, but luckily the rest of the times are fairly painless. Anyway, this type of "guess what the game designers were thinking and then figure out a way to execute it" occurs all the way up to the final boss, where I was stuck in two of the phases for a while trying to figure out how to do any damage at all. 

My final gripe about the game is the Cave of Ordeals. No, it is not too hard. I actually think it is an awesome idea and got so much better by going through it that the last level was ridiculously easy. My problem with the Cave of Ordeals is that I got all the way through clearing out room 47 when the door to room 48 refused to open. I had two rooms left, near full health and near full items, and the game exhibited some kind of bug. I wandered all around the room for ten minutes trying to find what I was missing to open the door. I turned into a wolf and sensed. Nothing. The game just had a bug. You can bet I wasn't going to go all the way through those 47 floors again anytime soon to see if it was going to happen again. So I just beat the game and will pull it out again when I have forgiven it for back stabbing me on floor 47 of the Cave of Ordeals. 

Enough with the negative, though. There are many, many positive things to say about the game. It is huge! I did not do all the side quests and it still took me around fifty hours. Like most Zelda games, it takes a bit to get used to the controls, but about mid-way through the second level playing becomes a joy. There are so many creative and fun game mechanics built into the game. At first there are new twists on older items. For me, using magnets with the iron boots was new and fun. However, a little over half way through the game it starts giving you completely new items which are very clever and fun to mess around with. My favorite is the dominion rod (which animates certain statues) but all four of the last items were fun to learn and explore. 

The best part of the game, though was the hand-to-hand combat. Unfortunately, tough hand-to-hand combat can be difficult and so it is left until the end of the game. Up until that point, most/all monsters can be taken care of by using a certain item or doing a hack job on them. In the last few levels and the Cave of Ordeals, you have to actually duel. This involves using various special moves you pick up during the game and dealing with armored foes that can parry and use special moves of their own. After you get the hang of it, one-on-one battles like this are actually pretty straightforward, although still fun. The many-on-one battles of the Cave of Ordeals are more of a challenge, except I never got to the last one because of the before mentioned bug. It is really fun to swing your shielf with your left hand, knock the guy off balance, push a button to jump, and then swing your sword as you come down and the enemy is still exposed. 

WARNING: SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH. Do I have any tips? If you are the kind of player who (like me) likes to go through the game on his or her own and then get a guide to finish up the missing parts, you need to track which Poes you capture and which heart containers you get from the beginning. Otherwise there are too many to mess with at the end of the game. You can drink the colored (non-purple) Chu slime for good effects. Rare Chus show up in various locations. I found one in the cave in between the Kakariko Village and Death Mountain. Rare Chus are like Fairy tears, so you can then double your power up fun. Finally, try using the fishing rod when you are fighting hand-to-hand with the final boss. END OF SPOILERS.

Maybe this game isn't for everybody. Mario Galaxy is probably slightly better as an overall game. I think Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is still the second best Wii game out right now (with Mario Kart as a close third), even though it was a launch title originally meant for Game Cube.