18 December 2007

Pay Your Water Bill

New York City was recently spared a raise in water rates. Instead of sticking the 18% rate hike to NYC residents, the government will track down water bill deadbeats and make them cough up the dough. The question that immediately came to my mind was, "Do you know anyone who refrain from paying for water use?" Every now and then someone would tell me that they have to leave the place where they are at to "go pay my water bill." Some Chinese I know even say the exact same thing in Chinese, namely, "去交水費". So how can there be water bill deadbeats if so many people I know always pay their water bills. Where did those people go when they said they went to pay their water bill?

It is a strange world ;-)

16 December 2007

The Story Behind Platypus

I liked the game Platypus so much I started to Google for more info about it. I learned that there was a sequel called, uh, Platypus II, for Windows only for now. Then there was also a Platypus for Sony's PlayStation Personal. Eventually, I came across the web site for Squashy Software, Anthony Flack's company. It was there that I learned about the story behind the game.

There are two stories of note on the Squashy Software web site. The first, also discussed elsewhere on the web, was that Anthony was an up-and-coming game developer. Along came software publisher iDigicon offering Anthony a lump sum for the game Platypus. Like many people starting out, Anthony didn't have much money at the time and took the offer, signing away all intellectual property rights that would be associated to the game. As yet another item in the traditional brick-and-mortar stores, the game didn't fare well at first. Then Mike Boeh obtained the rights to distribute the software from iDigicon, made some improvements to it, and re-released it online as shareware/demoware. The game was a big hit, but unfortunately, all Anthony Flack got out of it was the original sum iDigicon offered him (plus the completion bonus). Well, for a short while, through arrangement with Mike Boeh, Anthony was able to offer the game from the Squashy Software web site, but then iDigicon canceled the deal with Boeh and the action nixed the Squashy link as well. That was Feb 2006, something might be different by now because Boeh's web site, www.retro64.com, does offer Platypus for download, but Squashy Software doesn't.

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame once wrote that to be successful in business you would need to be a business person. He attributed his success in the cartoon syndication not so much because of his drawing skill, but rather from some other business angle. The world can be a complicated place sometimes. I identify with Anthony because I am not business-savvy. I like drawing cartoons and hope someday to make a living out of it. I dread ending up like young Anthony Flack of yesteryear, taken advantage by some lop-sided business deal that, at the time, was better than nothing.

The other point I find interesting is how having a backup offsite makes all the difference. While young Anthony was working on putting out Platypus, a fire in his building consumed everything he possessed except the clothes on his back. Luckily, he had a backup of the game stored outside the apartment. Wow. It is not only important to have backups, but the backup must be offsite, physically away from the original. Anthony had a hard time finding plasticine to continue making clay models, but at least he had the backup to continue the work.

Anthony Flack has been working on the next game, Cletus Clay, for a while. There is much anticipation in the indie game developer community, but Anthony doesn't have enough time to devote to it. Let's wait and see.

BTW, I learned today at http://www.blitzbasic.com/Community/posts.php?topic=34737 that Michael Reitzenstein did the conversion for the Mac platform for Platypus.

Besides the story posted on www.squashysoftware.com, you can also get info about Anthony Flack from an interview he granted to Indie Game Developer's Podcast:

http://www.indiegamepod.com/2006/10/squashy-software-interview-part-i.html
http://www.indiegamepod.com/2006/11/squashy-software-interview-part-ii.html

15 December 2007

Platypus

I am on the mailing list of a few game publishers, both to keep up with the news and for the occasional freebies. Recently, Macgamestore.com gave away the game Platypus to its subscribers. At first, I thought, great, a shoot-em-up game. In recent memory, I bought the game Jets 'N Guns, also of the shoot-em-up genre, because of its great music and impressive graphics, but the game is so hard I never got beyond level 2. I've been looking for
another game in the shoot-em-up category. Platypus is just what I want.

The game is relatively easy to play. I was able to get past a few levels the first time I played it. Work with a second player and you can advance even faster. (In the screenshot, Player 1 (yellow) hasn't re-materialized yet after being blasted into smithereens earlier.) I am currently stuck at Level 2, Area 2, so it is not that easy that I can finish in one seating. The music by Chris Abbot is nice, too. I wasn't into computer during the Commodore 64's heyday so I didn't readily recognize Abbot's music, but there is some similarities to the music I heard in some Commodore Amiga games. Unlike Jets 'N Guns, there is no need to buy and sell stuff to arm your spaceship. Just blast a wave of enemies and they become stars for you to collect. Shoot the stars a few times more and the power-up changes - wide-shooter, autofire, sonic wave, rocket, and lightning.

What really sets Platypus apart from many of the games out there is its claymation-based graphic. I think there are some game building packages out there that are used by the people who supply games to publishers like Game House and Big Fish Games. It's probably the same people using the same artists, such that they all look similar. The way the games are played maybe different, but still they do look the same. It's like cartoons from Pixar or Dreamworks. Impressive and beautiful as they are, the look in all those cartoons are the same. Not so with Platypus, because its creator, Anthony Flack, had meticulously made everything from clay and animated them. Think Nick Park, Creature Comfort, and Wallace and Grommit. Even though I am good at drawing, animation, computer-assisted or not, is just too tedious for me. My hat goes off to Anthony for the great work. The clay appearance simply gives the game a unique look that I haven't seen in any games.

Next time: The sad story behind the game.

02 December 2007

Him, Him, Him!

I just bought Rupert Holmes' Partners In Crime album from the iTunes Music Store. I didn't buy it for The Pina Colada Song or because I like the plays that he wrote - not that they are bad or anything. In my little corner of the world, Holmes' song Him holds special significance.

It was the early 1980's when I first settled down in the U.S., a mere lad in a family of six. We just arrived from the refugee camp and started adjusting to the new life. I had about one year of private English school but it wasn't enough to carry out fluent conversation. Someone, whether my late father or a cousin I cannot remember, said that when my English was good enough, I would be able to comprehend what was said or sung on the radio. Sure enough, whatever on the radio sounded so fast I couldn't understand much. Still, as I explored American music I discovered that, unlike Vietnamese music, there was much repetition as far as the lyric went. Even though I didn't understand all the words of a song, there was always certain phrases or words that were repeated over and over. As we didn't have a TV and I didn't read the newspaper, there was no way to confirm it but I was sure I knew the names of certain songs, simply based on the repeated words or phrase. One of the songs I like in those early days on American soil was Holmes' Him.

I didn't catch the lyric enough to know the entire story, but just hearing "Him! Him! Him!" and "It's me or it's him" I could interpret that it was about some guy telling his gal to choose one guy or the other. Love songs are usually about pain and suffering, universally.

I knew there was some reference to the window in the first line. I don't recall knowing back then what do without someone means, so even if I caught the phrase She's gonna have to do without him, I doubt I would know what it meant. Especially the gonna part, as it was a while before I learned the slang words.

Back to the present, I now can easily pick up the whole lyric for Him. I can even detect wrong lyric on some web site. I could have bought the song on CD elsewhere on the Internet but buying through the iTunes Music Store and have the song synchronized to the iPod has special significance. It's amazing how much technology changed over almost thirty years. Years ago I first listened to the song on some low-quality radio, now I have the song on an MP3 player the size of a pack of playing cards, along with many other songs.

22 November 2007

My First Thanksgiving Parade

video
After living in New York City for so long but still haven't gone to a single Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, I agreed wholeheartedly when Wife suggested that we go this year. The weather was great, not raining and not cold. There was only one problem - time. We didn't bother to get up early and got to Columbus Circle around 10 a.m. The video above pretty tells the story. Layers and layers of people lining the streets, even the side streets. Sure you can see the big balloons quasi-floating in the air, but there were much other things to see on the floats, too. Some people, perhaps living near the parade route, brought 2-step ladders to get themselves above the wall of people. Good move, I will consider lugging one along all the way from Brooklyn the next time I go, if I ever go again.

I thought the Border's Bookstore in the New York Coliseum, uh, Time-Warner Center, would be open, so last night I told my Son that we would visit the store after we were done with the parade. Son re-prioritized the whole thing and was a nag the whole time, complained that the parade was boring and that we should go to the bookstore instead. After running south a few streets in hoping of catching a better glimpse of the parade, I gave up and broke from the group (Wife and In-Laws), and went to Border's with Son. The store was closed, it was Thanksgiving Day after all, what was I thinking? Not giving up, I trekked uptown to the Barnes & Noble just outside Lincoln Center, only to discover that it too was closed. The only stores that seemed to open were the ten (I exaggerated) Starbucks I came across during the trip from Columbus Circle (around 57th Street) to Lincoln Center (around 65th Street). Not to waste a nice chance to be alone with my Son, with no other kids to fight with him, I bought tickets to see a 12:45 p.m. show of The Bee Movie. We had about two hours to kill so I took Son over to Central Park and let him roam the two playgrounds at West 67th Street (Adventure Playground and the unimaginatively named W. 67th Street Playground). With about 45 minutes until show time, we each had a hot dog for lunch, eaten on the bench just opposite the hot dog stand. Not only Son enjoyed Bee Movie, I too had a few good giggles as it has many jokes for adults, like a mosquito that ended up being a lawyer said it was an easy move for him because he was already a bloodsucking parasite in the first place.

It was a great day to spend with my Son, but there was one big issue. In the morning, fearing my weak bladder would cause troubles while watching the parade, I skipped both my OPC-3 drink and, more importantly coffee. I was supposed to pick one up at a Starbuck's later on, but didn't. Combined with a dubious egg-filled pastry piece for breakfast and just the hot dog for lunch, topped with the stale air in the movie room in the basement, the lack of coffee gave me a nasty headache by the time the movie ended. I spent the rest of the day feeling awful and sickish, but otherwise it was a great day, parade or not.

15 November 2007

Lanyard, I'll Tumble For Ya!

With my new cell phone, I made a change to the way I carry the device. Up to now, I have been carrying phones on the hip. Now I use a lanyard to dangle the phone from my neck. For me, the hip is the worst place to carry a cell phone, pager, or PDA. So many times I suddenly discovered that the phone was no longer clipped onto the belt and had to scramble about finding it. I have been lucky so far and always found the cell phone either in the car or at home in some places that I recently knelt down, perhaps to tie shoelaces. I still remember the time the nice $50 PDA Skins flew off the belt, the clip completely ripped off, when I squeezed through a conference desk and an arm chair too fast. Then there was the time the PDA, in some belt-clipped case, fell from the belt unnoticed. I discovered it absence shortly afterward, but only after I ran over it with my own car!

Hopefully with the lanyard such disaster will not happen. I do have to be careful not to swing the Razr2 against some hard object. For now, with the cold weather, I can ensure that won't happen by nesting the phone between the layers of clothes I wear.

I like the fact that the lanyard sports a breakaway connector. It is a safety feature involving a mechanism that when pressed releases the device from the lanyard. Good thing to have, in case one's device get stuck between a subway car's closing doors. Better lose the gadget than your life, no?

One thing I am tempted to use is a Bluetooth headset. When the lanyard is used together with a wired headset, the two tends to tangle up. A Bluetooth headset would solve the problem easily. I vow not to become one of those annoying lunatic talking on their Bluetooth headsets in public. I think those people should be made to wear a sandwich board that declares, "I am on the phone, I am not talking to you" whenever they use the headsets, so that passersby can safely ignore them instead of responding to them out of courtesy, only to be embarrassed.

12 November 2007

Razr2 v8

The pleasant surprises in life, I love them. This past weekend I went through the bi-annual ritual of selecting a different cell phone plan and upgrading the device. I am aware of the unnecessary amount of trash generated by cell phones that got discarded simply because they lack certain whiz-bang features. I plan to eventually donate my old phone via Staples. For details, visit http://www.collectivegood.com/donate_phone_Staples.asp

I would rather keep using the old cell phone, even with a cracked outside screen a few weeks after I had it. Napping on the couch with a cell phone clipped to the belt is not a wise thing to do, trust me. But then some of the number keys were falling off, the antenna came off a few times and had to put back with Crazy Glue. Worst of all, the device had so little memory. For a while, I was using it as a personal digital assistant (PDA), entering notes, reminders, alerts, etc. but the phone quickly ran out of memory. With the new Razr2 v8's 2 gigabytes of memory, I am sure I will finally have a decent PDA to us one-handed while riding the subway or waiting on the platform. I still keep the Handspring Deluxe for other PDA tasks, but for simple tasks likes reminders, I would rather save on AAA batteries by using the cell phone's rechargeable battery.

The last time I changed cell phone, I didn't care too much about cell phones and regarded them just as tools, something to get a job done, i.e. stay connected. The iTune Phone was just out and the phone rep suckered me into getting a rip-off phone, from Motorola but not the real thing. There was some problem with it, besides the inability to easily load and play music, and I traded in for a Nokia phone. It served its goal, albeit I could use more, lots more, memory space.

Two years later, the iPhone, the real McKoy, is out and much as I love it I am not too keen on paying the premium it demands. A couple hundred dollars for the phone, stuck with AT&T possibly forever, limited number of apps, plus the costly monthly fee. This time next year maybe there will be more apps to make the device more useful, but for now I am not ready for it. I just wanted a cell phone with lots of memory to store my notes and calendar entries. The rep suggested the Motorola Razr2. I heard about the Razr before but never researched about it.

Ten hours after the phone was charged I started to play with it. It has one port mini-USB port for everything, from power to headset to data transmission. At 2 megapixel, the camera is pretty decent. My first digital camera was 2.2 MP. The nice thing is iPhoto readily recognized the phone's camera. With my old phone, I had to email myself photos taken with the phone camera, incurring whatever cents that do accumulate over time. The best feature I like so far is the ability to play music on the device. Bluetooth provides a somewhat painless way to send the music files over the air. I probably will explore the possibility of using the USB cable to send tons of files to fill up the 2 GB of memory quickly, but for now I don't mind sending songs one at a time. I get a peek at how iTunes categorize my music by digging into the its folder structure.

I especially like the Razr's ability to use any music files as ringtones or alarm sound. In these dark days of Digital Rights Management, it is probably illegal to do so, but at least there is no technical hurdle to overcome. With the iPhone, one needs to shell out $1 for the song then another dollar to convert it to a ringtone. Or rely on hacks and fight a game of cat-and-mouse with Apple.

My goal for now is to load all the songs in my son's playlist on the iPod to the Razr. It is only about 200 MB so in between I also sneaked in some from my own list. Now only if the Razr came with some decent full games instead of the lame demos...

29 October 2007

Bitten By the Twitter Bug

I have finally succumbed to the Twitter bug. Twitter's motto is "What are you doing?" and you are supposed to constantly update your Twitter home page with notes about, uh, what you are doing. You are limited to 140 characters, so this is not the time and place to rant and rave about something dear to your heart. AFAIK, text only, too, so no worries about picture file formats or lengthy videos. Ideally, you update the site from your iPhones or whatever Internet-capable device you carry around with you all day.

I don't expect to have any followers more than the Blogger site, but it is fun to use Twitter nevertheless. There are times when you simply don't have enough time to pour your heart out, like on Blogger, so Twitter fits in nicely. Sort of like a personal diary, just really short. Blogging for the lazy, I sometimes think of Twitter that way. I cheat every now and then and write about something that happened a few hours earlier, but hey, if someone posts "Taking a shower", does he not really meant he took the shower? Unless he has a waterproof laptop and cannot possibly do a very good job of cleaning himself if he has to type and shower at the same time.

I cannot help but think of the movie The Truman Show starring Jim Carrey. Carrey's character was the center of a reality TV show without him knowing it. Every moment of his life was recorded and aired for the show audience to enjoy. Except with Twitter's case, the writer has control on what to put out there.

26 October 2007

Troubles In MeatSpace Part 2

Some months ago, I acquired an Amiga 500 computer, or A500 for short. In its heyday of late 1980's, the Amiga computer platform was touted as the best for desktop video. I dabbled a bit with video, but the one thing I learned from owning the Amiga computers was that command-line commands can be explicitly referred to. At the time, I subscribed to a disk-only magazine called JumpDisk. Each issue of JumpDisk featured programs, pictures, animation, music, etc. perhaps by readers and freelancers that the magazine paid. At one point, I happened to explore the scripts that came with the disks. Maybe to make sure the commands always work with the disk inserted, the scripts spelled out the full path of the commands and their arguments. For example, to load the picture Amiga500.iff in the folder called Pics using the Viewer program in the Tools folder, the command would be

JumpDisk13:/Tools/Viewer JumpDisk13:/Pics/Amiga500.iff

where the disk name is JumpDisk13. At the time, I was familiar with DOS commands and was aware of the PATH command, but it never occurred to me that there were other ways to issue commands. Using absolute paths, there was no need to CD (Change Directory) or to alter the PATH environment variable. But I digress.

The reason I acquired the A500 was that I had a few games on diskettes that I really like. I still have an Amiga 3000 but by default it boots from the hard drive. Most of the games were made for booting from the diskette drive. To do that with the A3000, I would have to hold down the mouse buttons at boot time then click a few buttons on the screen. After one game, if I forget to depress the two mouse buttons, I would have to reboot again after the A3000 completed booting up. And then there were other games that would not work at all with the A3000's newer architecture, compared to the A500, that is. To go around certain limitations, some games went directly to some hardware addresses. When the A3000 came out with changes in hardware design, those games stopped working.

So now I had the A500, games booted up from the diskettes easily - there are no hard drive anyway. It requires some patience to play the games, as it takes some time for the computer to read from the floppy drives. But the graphic and music are usually so great, even in these days and age, with faster computer and higher resolution graphics. The only problem is that now I have a bunch of floppy diskettes to juggle around. For starter, looking for the games that I like was a daunting tasks. It had been a while since I last needed to play Amiga games on diskettes. I somewhat knew where the disks were, but they had become very disorganized. A bunch here, a box there, all over. I managed to find most of the games I like. There were a few diskettes that I gave up on ever playing again and tossed them into a box for recycling - if I ever needed a diskette to be formatted. Luckily, the need never arose and I was able to rummage through the pile. I found Obliterator (platform game), Capone (shooting game), Pluto (vertical scrolling shoot-'em-up), etc. The only game I have not found is Menace, a side-scrolling shoot-'em-up game. It is one thing to own something, it is something else to be able to locate it, if it cannot be stored on a hard disk. This is where cyberspace needs meatspace. No physical diskette then no game.

18 October 2007

Trouble In MeatSpace

My other sister once spoke derisively of those who are hooked on SimLife and similar games. She is not a computer geek like me and do not see what is the big deal with having a second, digital life. While I do not play Second Life or ever want to have a digital alter ego, there are times I wish that meatspace, that is, the non-digital, real version of life, can be more like cyberspace.

My friend Teary finds it hard to believe that I am not handy with tools like hammer, power drill, and soldering irons. I am good at drawing cartoons, am I not? I must have good hand-eye coordination, otherwise I would not be able to draw that well. On top of that, I have a bachelor degree in Mechanical Engineering, too! Or so it seems. Perhaps because my parents did not let me do things on my own and then I got into the computer field, to this day I am very reluctant to take on physical projects. No putting up of shelves, no installing of flood light, or anything involving soldering. Plumbing problems like clogged drains I can handle, mostly with success. I can take pipes apart and send down the snake. With much sweating and sore arm muscles, so far I have always succeeded at clearing the pipes. One time I was too gungho and even took apart the pipe part that attached to the wall. I had to enlist my brother-in-law (on the Wife side) to help stop the leak afterward. For tasks that I cannot bring myself to do, I have to rely on contractors or my brother-in-law C (the real Mechanical Engineer), but he lives in St. Louis and can only visit every now and then.

In the perfect world that I sometimes wish I live in, everything would be re-bootable. Drilled a hole half an inch below where it should be? Reboot. Soldered a container shut then realized something is inside that you need? Reboot. Painted yourself into a corner? You guess it... reboot.

I recently had the displeasure of having to change the light bulbs for the master bedroom. The bulbs are those long, florescent tubes, not the kind that pops over cartoon characters' heads when ideas hit them. It was a drop ceiling and the light fixture was not attached to the real ceiling but instead hang from a socket via some strings. Aarrgh! It was simply impossible for one person to put the new tubes into the fixture. I had to have the Wife hold the dangling fixture. If I was in the digital world, I suppose I could have used some kind of select tool to surgically remove the dangling fixture and put in one that attaches firmly to the ceiling. I sure can use a digital Second Life.

30 September 2007

Tunnel To Towers Run - Completed

Yesterday, I was supposed to take a long break from work to go pick up my Tunnel To Towers T-shirt. I had Google Calendar sent me reminders, but it is one thing to see reminder email message and it is another thing to actually read them and take action. It turned out on Saturday I totally forgot about the T-shirt pickup until like 8 p.m.! I went to bed feeling crummy about being old and forgetful. Supposedly there would be only a limited number of T-shirts at the finish line.

Like the NYC Marathon, one of the bad part of the TTT Run is the wait at the beginning. Unlike the Marathon, which was practically in the middle of nowhere in Staten Island, with the TTT Run, I killed time by walking along Henry Street from 2 Place to Atlantic Avenue. The area is very nice, with lots of beautiful brownstones with well-maintained front yard. I spotted the two public playgrounds on the same block with the Long Island Hospital, something to keep in mind if I ever will be in the neighborhood with my son. The race was supposed to start at 10 a.m. sharp but probably because of the Tunnel as the bottleneck, runners were allowed to start in groups. I actually started at 10:40.

Although I usually ran 3K and sometimes ran 4K not feeling extra tired, perhaps because I started out too fast I quickly felt tired. It helped that there were firemen with American flags lined up near the tunnel exit to cheer us on. I thought once I made it out the tunnel it would be over soon. It turned out that, perhaps to make the race an even 5K in distance, we had to make a big loop through Battery Park City. Again, the cheerleaders, the real kind and other kind, helped, but many times I thought of taking a break and walk the rest of the way. Fortunately, I didn't, and even sprinted once the balloon arc symbolizing the finish line came into view. I finally got my race T-shirt and there was plenty of food and drinks for all.

I wished I had time to stay longer after the race to listen to all the speeches and to show appreciation of the FDNY. But I had a pile of computer junks at home to cart to the electronic recycling event at Keyspan Park. I made it just in time, too. Afterward, I even had the energy to walk half of Atlantic Avenue for the Atlantic Antic street fair. What a great way to spend a beautiful autumn day...

23 September 2007

Job One

Today I visited my old neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens. For years, I lived in Elmhurst, Queens just south of the Jackson Heights-Elmhurst border. For those who don't know, Queens is one of the five boroughs of New York City. Only in Queens people specify their towns in their mailing addresses. People in the other boroughs would simply list their borough name followed by NY, such as Bronx, NY or Brooklyn, NY but in Queens, you get things like Elmhurst, NY, Woodhaven, NY, or Utopia, NY. Of course, nowadays the zip code makes it pointless to specify anything at all, but the Queens people like their towns so much they want it that way, at least that's what I read in some pro-Queens free newspaper.

Even back in the early 80's when I lived in Elmhurst, Roosevelt Avenue was already the commercial strip of the area. We did our shopping, grocery or otherwise, along Roosevelt and even went into Jackson Heights to use its post office, movie theaters, and public library. South of us we had Broadway's commercial strip but it was much farther than Roosevelt Avenue.

Much of Jackson Heights has changed since I moved out of the area. Many mornings before school I would sit by the window looking for my schoolmate Mario walking toward my building. He would walk through an alleyway connecting Denman Street and Roosevelt Avenue to meet me and we would walk to school together. The alleyway has long since disappeared, blocked off by some new building. Seventy-fourth street has long ago become India Town, all the stores either sell fabrics or some other merchandise catered to the Indian population. There used to be a department store, children's department store, I would even venture to guess, at the northwest corner of 82nd Street and 37th Avenue. The place is now home to many little stores, on the 37th Avenue side. I think some church school occupies the rest of the old department store.

The site of my first job ever, at the corner of 86th Street and 37th Avenue, is still around. The lousy camera in my lousy cell phone failed miserably at capturing the street signs. The store is now called something and V Bagel Cafe but it was called Hot Bagel when I worked there. A friend of my father had part ownership in the store and somehow I got a job at the store one summer. On the first day, I made $14 for working seven hours. I thought it was too much and refused to take the money, but took it in the end. What a dumb kid I was.

At the bagel store, I made bagels from ready-made dough, sprinkled with the various toppings (sesame, poppy, salt, etc.), slid the uncooked bagels into the oven, and took them out later. I also did some cashier work, food delivery, and floor-sweeping. I learned how to make bagel pizza - basically flattening out the dough, spread tomato sauce and sprinkled shredded cheese on the dough, and put in the oven as usual. I discovered the joy of eating a nicely toasted bagel with Philadelphia cream cheese spread on.

I enjoyed the free food and drinks at the store. One time, I had a pint-sized carton of orange juice while the big boss was around. Next time I wanted to have a pint of OJ, the boss got me a half-gallon and wanted me to drink from a cup. He probably wanted me to use the half-gallon for the whole week, instead of a pint each day. I ended up drinking the whole half-gallon in a day. Oh, well, I'm sure Mr. Boss made lots of money off of my cheap labor already.

I think I gave all the money to my parents. Life was much simpler when one didn't have to keep up with the latest operating system or the latest electronic gadget. I didn't have to worry about clothes or girls - at least not yet. At some point, for reason I cannot remember, my parents didn't let me work at the store any more. Maybe it was because they figured I needed to pay more attention to school. They only wanted me to have a little exposure to the working life during the summer break, but not to work during the school year.

The bagel store looked different. It now had a few tables and chairs. I didn't go inside to see if they still make the bagels on premise. Management probably changed a few times in the intervening years. However, I still remember well how I reacted in my silly way when presented with the $14 cash that I earned for the day.

14 September 2007

Tunnel To Towers Run

I've signed up for the 5K Tunnel To Towers Run, scheduled for Sunday, September 30. Every year before, I would know about the Run in the news, after it had happened. So last year I entered a reminder in my Google Calendar. I totally forgot about it but the Google brain didn't and sure enough a reminder was sent at the scheduled time. I even managed to sign up early enough to avoid the $10 late fee.

The Run commemorates Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Firefighter Stephen Siller's last heroic act. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Siller was already off-duty but tried to get back to work when news of the World Trade Center terrorist attack reached him. He tried to drive into Manhattan from Brooklyn but wasn't allowed to. He then ran through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the WTC site, in full FDNY gears, and was last seen at West and Liberty Streets in Manhattan. He probably entered the WTC inferno and perished with all of his squad. The Run retraces his steps from the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel through the Tunnel to the WTC site.

Heroic tales inspire me. Some people say that raising kids and just doing one's part in life is heroic enough. I disagree. There are heroic and non-heroic acts and Siller's last action was heroic. The pro-Jew New York Post calls every U.S. soldier in Iraq a hero. While it's great that some people give up years of their civilian life to serve the country, there are still differences between the guy who runs through enemy fire to rescue comrades versus some guy who just drives an armor truck in a convoy. Along the same vein, in the argument of having a separate memorial for firefighters who lost their lives at the WTC, apart from the regular office workers, I'm all for the separation. It is definitely sad that many people lost their lives, but I think those who risked their lives to save others, and died in the process, deserve a higher recognition.

Perhaps from my teen years reading propaganda literature of the Vietnamese communist government, I fancy myself someday doing some heroic works. I certainly didn't go through with the wish one time in Brooklyn. At that time, we lived in northern Brooklyn, near the border of Queens. It was, and still is, a bad neighborhood. One night my father was coming home late so my mother and I waited for him at the subway station to walk home together, strength in number and all. During the wait, some drunk guy was in the station with us and some other guy showed up. They had some argument and a loud noise was heard. My mother and I were not far from the two. As the argument progressed, I inched toward the exit to the street. When the loud noise happened, I ran up the stairs very quickly, leaving my mother behind. By the time I came back the two guys have disappeared somewhere. My mother still mocks me every time and I cannot blame her. I guess I'm not made for heroic acts.

http://www.tunneltotowersrun.org/stephensiller/herostory.html

06 September 2007

Notes Nicknames

Lotus Notes is the mail system in use in my office. When I first started with the company about seven years ago, our email name was just the first name followed by the last name. Then we had a big merger and all of a sudden there are more than one Joe Block and Jane Doe in the firm. To make the names unique, middle initials were introduced, first with the dot then without. Someone could start out as John Smith and if there's a new John Smith then the new guy would be named John X. Smith, unless he has his own real middle initial. A third John Smith might come along after the abandoning of the dot, so that he would be John Y Smith. All this is fine for all those people with common first names and last names, but what if the people I know have unique names, like Albus Dumbledore or Severus Snape? What can I do if I just want to address these two as Dumbledore or Snape, respectively?

The answer lies in the use of the Personal Address Book (PAB). Instead of trudging through THE central Address Book, you can create your very own address book, entering the names individually or copying them from the central Address Book as the need arises. Once you have an entry in your PAB, you can customize it to your heart's content. In Albus B. Dumbledore's case, I'll just call him Dumbledore. Who cares if he has a brother name Aberforth? The brother only came out in the last Harry Potter series so the name Dumblebore automatically refers to Albus. I can never remember whether Dumbledore's middle initial has a dot or not anyway, so just Dumbledore does the job. Likewise, I don't care that there are other blokes named Harry out there, I want to address Harry J Potter simply as Harry.

As shown in the screenshot, what I did was I made my Dumbledore entry to have no first name and no middle initial. Just the last name. For Harry Potter to be just Harry, I would make Harry his last name and again provide nothing else. Then whenever I want to address these magical characters, I just enter the short version and press F9, then the real address would show.

I like the discovery I made on my own but thought there should be another way around it, something more direct. Sure enough, as pointed out at http://www.alanlepofsky.net/alepofsky/alanblog.nsf/dx/nicknames , the proper way to make use of nickname is to enter them in the Short Name field in the Advanced tab. To use multiple nicknames for the same person, you would enter the variations in the Full Name field, keeping each variation on its own line. Still, I like my way better because I can make the change right there when I open up the entry. Also, in the list view, all my entries would appear sorted exactly the way I think of them. With the way Alan Lepofsky pointed out, in the list view Dumbledore would still appear as Albus B. Dumbledore and not as Dumbledore.

In my real address book in the office, I have entries for Teary, Purple, Lone Gunman, plus a bunch of other first names that are either unique, such as Inna or Magnus, or belong to people in my immediate group.

Oops, I did it. My fans don't want to read about boring computer stuff but I wrote on the topic anyway. Oh well.

05 September 2007

Goodbye, Hallows

A few days ago, I deleted the entry "Borrow HP from lib." from my To Do list. I also canceled a hold I placed on the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with the New York Public Library. Like the previous Potter books, I didn't want to spend the money on the book - it's good but not good enough that I would read it over and over. Might as well just borrow it and return it when done, save a little room in the house, a little money in the wallet, and last but not least, earn a point for the anti-consumerism movement. Remembering how hard it was to finally borrow a copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (the Potter book before Hallows), I didn't want to bother trying to borrow Hallows until a month after it came out. Just when the time came, my Wife informed me one of her nephews bought the book but won't read it. It was all mine for the asking...

I went through the book in less than a week. This time around the story takes place mostly outside of Hogwarts. As a matter of fact, for the a big part of the story, our heroic trio (Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley) really live like homeless, magical homeless, yes, but still homeless. The recurring theme, that all creatures are created equal, is there, with Wizards, Elves, Centaurs, etc. in the end fighting side-by-side against the Dark Lord and his idea of Pure Blood. The usual comic relief moments are there, too. Also as the trend with each new book, more and more characters die. You might have heard of the rumor that a major character dies in the last Potter book. It is true, but not to worry, it's a magical novel, lots of thing can happen by, well, magic.

I finished the book at almost two in the morning. The next morning, I had a nagging question: "In the Battle of Hogwarts, where did Neville Longbottom get the Gryffindor Sword from?" It was supposedly in the possession of the the goblin Griphook. Thanks to the web, I got my answer shortly. You just have to be a true Gryffindor, with bravery etc., to be able to pull the Sword out of the Sorting Hat. Yup, the Sword can be locked up somewhere somehow, and just because you are a true Gryffindor, it will be in your possession when you need it. Don't forget, lots of things happen by magic. How I wish I can pull a few million dollars out of my wallet whenever I need the dough...

04 September 2007

The Last Weekend of Summer 2K7

Ah, the last weekend of summer 2007 is gone. It sounds poetic and dramatic but really for me, as I have long been out of school, summer doesn't really mean much. I don't have any extra days off, unless I take time off. I still have to go to work five days a week.

Originally, Wife wanted to go shopping in Crossing Mall way out in Pennsylvania, but luckily she changed her mind and wanted to go to Queens Center in Queens. This is not the Queens Center that I know from my years of living in its neighborhood, first in Elmhurst then in Woodhaven. The, to me, still new Queens Center doesn't occupy just one city block but instead stretch over a huge block, in addition to the original mall. Still, I always get a headache whenever I visited the mall. Perhaps it has to do with boredom or maybe the recycled air inside really does harm to one's head. It won't help if I keep my Son in the play area in the basement. I absolutely hate the play area anyway. It's too small relative to the mall's size and is way overcrowded. It is not well maintained and kids, big and small, would run all over. It's lawsuit haven, but the mall probably has a safety net clause somewhere.

It was a beautiful to be outside, so I only dropped Wife and her relatives at the mall then Son and I went to the park. In my years living in Woodhaven, I spent many morning commute in my father's taxi cab going from Woodhaven to the Williamsburg Bridge. Most of the time, Father drove along 80th Street, which has relatively less traffic than Woodhaven Boulevard. I passed by Juniper Park many times but since I didn't live in the area, never once visited it. Fast forward to the present, now I had an excuse to visit it, for my Son. First we visited Juniper South Playground and had ice cream from Mr. Softee. When Son was bored, I thought of driving to some other park along Woodhaven Boulevard, but instead happened upon the bigger Juniper North Playground. Son had some more fun running and climbing the newer playground structures, but we also watched a game bocce. At first I thought it was lawn bowling, but then learned that with bocce the bigger balls don't necessarily touch the small one (pallino). Son wanted to have a throw at it and I even casually asked one of the old man if Son could have a fling but the man turned me down. It's probably a tight-knit club that doesn't welcome outsiders.

Finally it was at around 3 that Son agreed to have lunch. Instead of the usual hustle of Queens Center's crowded food court, we enjoyed a nice meal at Andrew's Pizzeria on nearby Eliot Avenue. I had a Sicilian square while Son had spaghetti meatballs. All without having to fight for a table or having to deal with the overflowed trash containers at the mall.

With extra time on hand, I took Son to yet another playground, the Greenhouse Playground in Forest Park, Woodhaven. There wasn't much to do in Greenhouse Playground, other than watching some kids do stunts on skateboards and mountain bikes. I knew the Park has a working carousel but doubted that it would be open on the holiday. In fact, it was open and running, its music just not loud enough to reach far. Son rode on the thing three times, costing me a total of $4.50. He also had some snacks and drinks. The last activity of the day was to pretend to perform on Forest Park's Band Shell. I convinced Son to pretend playing a guitar with his newly bought inflatable hammer. There were a few other kids around so they played together. Then my cell phone ran and it was Wife et al, they were finally done with their shopping. Just in time, too, as a bunch of teenage kids started to swarm the Band Shell to practice jumping off the stage, without regards for all the little kids nearby.

It wasn't the typical way to end summer. I didn't have any BBQ or hang out with a bunch of people. But for me, avoiding an unpleasant stay in the mall and spending quality time my son was the kind of great time I like to have.

18 August 2007

Naruto

"Three days, fifty hours, one hundred episodes," my Son muttered when I asked him "Naruto again?" Son was referring to the marathon that Cartoon Networks had going for Naruto fans. Up to recently, I had thought of the anime series as "that cartoon show with the kid who looks like a cat," because the main character, Naruto Uzumaki, has what appears to be whiskers on his cheeks. Of course, Son had been watching the show more intently and words like jitsu, chunin, hokage, and chakra flowed out of his mouth with ease. He sure knew what the words mean, or at least in what context to use them. I realized that I haven't watched much TV with him lately. I think I used to watch many Japanese animes with him, on VCDs and translated into Cantonese. Maybe I wasn't as busy with work back then. It's nice when I can quip jokes related to his favorite shows or act out with him scenes from the shows.

To catch up with Naruto, I recently spent a few hours watching the marathon with Son. It's actually quite an interesting story. Naruto appears to have whiskers perhaps because his father, the Fourth Hokage, sealed the spirit of a Nine-Tailed Fox demon in him, at least that's what I think. Most of the fighting in the show involve magic, not the typical ninja martial arts. I detected some resemblance to Harry Potter, as one of evil character was able to put himself into various bodily shell to make him harder to eradicate.

I supplemented the info gaps with Wikipedia and library books. I tried to get Son to read more and watch less by borrowing a Naruto graphic novel for him. He didn't read much but I ended up reading the whole book myself.

Perhaps subconsciously I tried to do for my son what my father did for me. To get me know more Chinese, for years my father got me my weekly supply of Oriental Heroes graphic novels. The book series was actually called 龍虎門, which is nothing close to Oriental Heroes, just something that's lost in translation. Reading 龍虎門 helped me learn a lot of Chinese. Although the story is mostly understood just by looking at the pictures, there are times knowing the key words help, so I actually looked them up in Chinese-English dictionaries.

In case you are curious, here are the meanings of the Japanese words I mentioned:
  • jitsu - magical art
  • chunin - some kind of exams ninjas take to advance to the next level
  • hokage - village leader
  • chakra - perhaps what the Chinese call qi (氣), some kind of internal energy that when properly channeled, can come outside as a ball of energy... hey it's a fantasy cartoon, don't forget.

16 August 2007

Polls

Call me Going-Ga-Ga-Over-Google if you will, I just love Google, not least of which are the gadgets that can be easily added to a homepage or blog. I recently convinced my sister to update her Blogger template and now she can easily add things to her blog's sidebar. The old way of mucking with the innards of the HTML code is very difficult and introduces plenty of room for errors.

I just updated my sidebar to have a poll. Tell me what you want to write more about! I don't know what my adoring fans, all four of them, enjoy reading if I don't have their feedback.

Seriously, don't take it too seriously. Blog writing is something to be done with one's heart in it, at least for me. I usually sit down with a topic already planned out. Mind you, I don't have every sentences thought ahead. I try not to do too much web-surfing checking for details. Such action usually derails my train of thought. Writing "some guy did this and that" suffices, but looking up the guy's exact name may cost me precious minutes and makes me veer in another direction.

So, I write whatever on my mind at the time, or whatever I already planned to. It must be something I feel strongly about, or something I enjoy doing tremendously. Something to gush over, to rant and rave about. I am a quiet person in life but when it comes to writing I like to make a splash out of it.

08 August 2007

Deluge

I have a colleague who is based in India. He recently wrote that the weather there had been bad, that transportation will be affected so he would be working from home. The scenario matched the general belief that India, for all its computer talents, is hampered by an inadequate infrastructure. Ironically, a few days later, New York City was hit by a rain storm and its mass transportation also came to a grinding halt. I wish some people would stop calling New York the greatest city in the world. Its subway system is horribly below par. The public announcement system is a horrible joke. I seriously hope no terrorist attacks will ever happen inside the subway tunnel. If it happens, hapless riders will be "guided" by announcement like "{grumble} {grumble} {blah} {bleah} to the exit {aarggh} ..." My cartoon at right is about some dumb terrorists breaking the P.A. system, something that I believe is already broken. It doesn't help that the speaker sometimes have some heavy Brooklyn or some other accent. I am all for computerized announcements. When I first started riding the PATH trains, I thought its P.A. was decent, but lately it has deteriorated as well. Maybe the same computer that wired the NYC P.A. is now in charge of the PATH also.

07 August 2007

M.A. B.S. ?

Call me a skeptic if you would, but the more I read about Market America the more it stinks. Multi-level Marketing (MLM), pyramid scheme, Charles Ponzi story, Amway, the list goes on and on. I've got to read more and find out more about all these scams. So far, I've come across

http://www.boconline.com/bizopp-forums/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=18
http://www.scam.com/showthread.php?t=2828

I'm sure there are others. My wife's attitude seems to be, "Well, let's try it out and see what happens." I wonder how much money she already spent. If it's in the thousands of dollars, that is a steep price to find out if something works or not. It's like, "Let's eat dirt and find out if it really tastes awful." She knows making money is through recruiting more people, but she doesn't seem to see any problems with that. I wonder how one would tell the future suckers. "Uh, you joined under me for x dollars then work your ass off to get two suckers under you then you can live a comfortable life." Of course that's just me, cannot tell lies so easily. These scams usually tell you that you can do the work in your spare time, but for me spare time means the hour or two I have on the computer. The commute is long, there's a child to take care of, hours of sleep to have to be in good health.

As someone wrote in one of the links above, just because the business has been around for years doesn't mean it's a good business. Enron was all well and good until the sh!t hit the fan...

Speaking of scam, every now and then my AdSense would have links to some gaudy web site claiming one can make thousands of dollars from blogging. Sadly, Googling about the chap all ended at web sites that rants about how great the system is, or advertises other similar "product". The "product" in this case I think is the book. At $50 or so, it seems expensive. I think that's how the thousands of dollars are made. Anyone found out otherwise about these blogging scam?

05 August 2007

Home From Greensboro

After another long bus ride, I'm home again. The entire trip spanned five days, but about one and a half days were spent on the bus. Win some, lose some. At least with the bus, I was able to nap off and on and didn't have to constantly keep an eye on the road. I did have an inner fear occasionally when the bus crossed some bridge...

For the first full vacation day, I took my son to Downtown Greensboro. After a visit to the Children's Museum, there wasn't much else to do. Most of Downtown even closed down at 3 p.m. or 4 p.m., so after an early dinner, we headed back to the hotel for some pool time.

I was worried of what to do for the second day. Luckily, I came across an advertisement for the Friendly Center in the Relocation Guide magazine. Normally, when on vacation I abhor the idea of spending any time in a shopping mall, but in this case it was necessary to visit the mall. Sprawled over a wide outdoor area, the Friendly Center had Chuck E. Cheese's, Barnes & Noble bookstore, a movie theater, and McDonald's, plus the usual myriad of stores carrying women's clothes, shoes, jewelries, etc. A good time was had by me and my son. We had Chuck E. Cheese's all to ourselves for about an hour then the crowd started pouring in. After spending $10's worth of tokens, we walked over to the movie theater but it was too early. We doubled back to visit B&N, but alas there were no Mac magazines worth buying. I am a sucker for the British magazines if the cover CD/DVD has worthy free software, usually older version of some commercial app. Instead, J got yet another Thomas the Tank Engine toy. Finally, at the theater we saw Underdog. Afterward, we re-visited Chuck E. Cheese's and spent yet another $20 on tokens. Finally, we had lunch at Mickey D where J had some exercise in the playground area. Again, we took the taxi back to the hotel for some rest time. We wanted to go swimming in the hotel's tiny pool again, but it rained so we waited it out. For dinner, we walked to the nearest main road's buffet restaurant.

On the third day, it was Celebration Station for mini-golf and more indoor arcade games. I much prefer Chuck E. Cheese's All-Game-1-Token policy. Games at Celebration Stations all require different number of tokens, thus introduced an unwelcome break in the flow of enjoyment. Lunch took a long time to come, but I suppose that's the price you pay for having lunch when there was another party going on. Another taxi ride to another movie theater near the hotel to see Ratatouille. What a concept - rats, stinking sewer rats, cooking in a fancy French restaurant. Yuck! After the movie, J obediently walked back to the hotel with me. I've noticed that in the Greensboro area the taxi meter started at $1.80, so we probably saved at least $2 for that walk. It was good exercise after sitting in the dark at the movie theater. Yet another trip to the tiny pool, followed by a visit to the nearby Best Buy, and finally we took the taxi to the Sheraton Hotel to meet up with Mommy. While waiting for Wife to have a final meeting with her Market America cohorts, I plunked down $10 to use the Internet. Before the 'Net time expired, Wife was done with the meeting so we had to leave.

The trip home was less eventful than the trip out. We left the hotel together and spent a little time at Market America's Headquarter, just the outside as the line to get inside was long. Last stop in the area was the Coliseum again, this time to see the trade show. Expecting something the size of PC Expo, I was disappointed by the small size of the show. No revolutionary products here, just some household detergents here, some diet formulas there, telephony, vitamin supplements...

For the first half of the bus ride home, it was like watching infomercials on TV. Different people ranted about how great M.A. had been for them, how they joined and enjoyed the work. The whole thing is just too one-sided. I need to know more about M.A. from a third party. I think it boils down to being just a second job, with no benefits, so it's still work. Before making any money, it seems we have to take many training sessions and attend many conventions. I cannot help but think of it as some kind of pyramid scheme, where you have to drag more people in to push you up. Let's see what happens in a few years with the Wife.

02 August 2007

Hello from Greensboro, NC

I'm having a mini-vacation in Greensboro, North Carolina. My wife has been enlisted by Market America and just in time for the annual convention in Greensboro. While she goes about with her convention, I figured I would explore Downtown Greensboro with my son.

The vacation started out on a bad note as I had insomnia the night before and slept so soundly and didn't hear the alarm at 4:30 a.m. Or perhaps the alarm was too low. We were supposed to be in Flushing at 6 a.m. but instead we woke up at 6 a.m., thanks to Mother. Of course, Mother would repeatedly chided me until I finally made it out the door at 6:20. Good thing I packed everything the night before, else there would be no way I could pack properly in the heat of battle. The only thing I didn't bring was info about Greensboro. While I couldn't sleep, I got up and copied-and-pasted some info from the web into my Palm Desktop and thought I would sync the next morning. Alas, I barely had time to grab the luggage to storm out the door. Luckily, we still made it to the bus, which left at 7:30. I had to trust my car to a girlfriend of someone in the Market America group to park in her driveway, but that was the best arrangement for the circumstance.

It took about 11 hours to get the Sheraton where Wife and her cohorts got their M.A. tickets. Alas, we were not going to stay there, but rather at some tiny hotel five minute's bus ride away. Choices of dinner weren't abundant and we settled for Papa John's Pizza while others bought Chinese takeouts to take back to the hotel. Having insufficient sleep, my anemic condition set in for the second half of the day and I was glad to turn in for the night early, around 10:30.

In the morning, I tagged along with the Wife et al to get to the Coliseum. There was a sign that said Downtown was 2 miles away. If it was just me, I probably would have made the hike. With my son, I took a taxi that happened to drop off some convention-goers. We got off in Downtown's Children's Museum for $9, including tip. J had a great time in the Museum. It had interactive scenes like supermarket, house under construction, restaurant, etc. In the afternoon, we went to the Depot, the transportation hub of Greensoboro. I expected something like NYC's Grand Central Terminal, with shops and such all over, but the Depot is really just a transportation hub. I read about the Carolina Model Railroaders, supposedly a place where one can see model trains. Alas, after the walk in the heat, the Railroaders was closed. We went to the City Center Park to walk under the arch of shooting water to cool off, then went into the Culture Center. It was rather quiet, too. Too hot to walk around, we went to the Central Library, just across from the Children's Museum. I wouldn't mind paying for Internet access at some cafe, but none was to be found and the Library gives it out free. By the way, hanging out with my son having not much to do is still better than waiting for the ladies to eventually ending their shopping spree...

Son is already bored after an hour playing on the computer. Some local kid hang out with him and they seemed to have a good time playing Curious George on the PC. I had to sshhh them a few times.

Wandering the street of Greensboro with my son, I couldn't help think about the movie Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith. Of course, my "plight" is nothing compared to Smith's character in the movie, with no home to live and a tough job to cling on.

Dinner is supposed to be at the best buffet place in the city. I'll have to catch a taxi back to the convention center to meet the gang. The taxi driver had wisely given him his business card and told me to ask for his number, #20, so most likely I'll call him then.

27 July 2007

Face the Book

I signed up with Facebook recently. I'm still exploring it, to see if I really need it. The last thing I need to spend time on is something made for teens or singles looking for fun. It seems to be overwhelming. Kinda like Blogger, it has tons of apps one can add to the homepage. Perhaps too many. It has a great way to look up people you know and infect them with Facebook. Uh, I mean "invite them to Facebook." Perhaps more later...

26 July 2007

Titan Attacks

Help! I'm addicted to Titan Attacks!

Well, it's not that bad, but I do have a weak side when it comes to video games. It all started with the console game Space Invaders. I first got exposed to it when I first came to the U.S. as a teen. As a new immigrant and a kid, with little money to spare, I played it only a few times, possibly at the arcade place near Mott St. and Bowery in Chinatown. Years later when I owned the Amiga computer, I played a lot with the clone called Amoeba Invaders. Unfortunately, in later Amiga computers, the game no longer worked, possibly because of different chip architecture. As a Mac owner, my search for a clone of Space Invaders has gotten nowhere until when I stumbled upon Titan Attacks.

The initial waves in Titan Attacks resemble Space Invaders but after a few waves the game is mostly different. Other than avoiding enemies' bullets, you should collect goodies as they fall from the sky. Some power-ups are immune to your bullets but other you must be careful not to blast them apart. At the end of each wave, you get the chance to buy shield, gun power, extra bullets, etc., depending on how much money you've gotten.

At $20 I think the game is a great investment. Going for a retro feel, the game doesn't have eye-popping graphics or heart-pumping rock music, but you get a lot out of the game. As long as you have enough shield, you can survive many enemy blasts. With the original Space Invaders, one blast and your current live is gone. I'm not that good a player and yet so far I've made it to level 30 something out of 100. My favorite power-up so far is add-on, a laser gun to go with your blaster, although it cost 2000 monetary units. I've learned that as long as I don't overspend on shield or other power-ups, I can save enough to get the laser add-on.

I cannot help but compare Titan Attacks to Jets 'N Guns. While JNG has great graphics and music, at $35 it's a waste as I never finish any levels other than the first one. What's the use of boasting x levels of beautiful graphics when I can never get past level one?

Titan Attacks is available in demo mode. Gameplay is the same as the real version, the only difference is that whenever you die, you are taken to the Puppy Games web site and prodded to buy the game. You can just close the web browser and start a new game. I was tempted to keep playing the demo and use the "interference" as an intermission. In the end, I decided to support the small Mac developers by buying software that I enjoy. I can always go cold turkey if I feel I spend too much time on the game.

22 July 2007

Family Camping

I had a unique experience last night. For whatever reason, my son loves to sleep in a tent or some kind of crude shelter. At home he would use sofa seats and cushions to build his own "club." He would barely have enough room in the club to sit upright and any movements would put him outside the club, but he enjoyed playing club very much. Finally, last night his wish of sleeping in a tent was realized.

My family joined a few other families in the Family Camping program offer by the NYC Urban Park Rangers. Everything was free, all it took was a phone call to the Rangers' phone system. The site was the Alley Pond Adventure Park in Queens, New York.

The evening started with a BBQ dinner (hot dogs, burgers, and soda/water.) Each family was assigned a tent. I thought the tent would require driving short metal stakes into the grass and making fancy knots with the ropes. Fortunately, it was much easier than that. Two flexible rods served as the spine for the tent. Fit the rods' ends to pre-set holes attached to each of the four corners and the tension in the rods had the tent free-standing in no time. After all the tents were setup, we were treated to a campfire on the grill. (Park regulation prohibited making fire on the ground.) We were provided graham crackers, marshmallows, and slabs of chocolates to make our own s'mores. Making the perfectly toasted marshmallow had to be an art achieved with practice, as most of the marshmallow either caught fire or became blackened. At around ten we headed out on the hike. It was indeed a special opportunity as the park was closed. It was probably not safe to wander alone at night in the forest. Harms can come either naturally or from criminal elements. J had always been afraid of the dark, so he had his flashlight on all the time during the hike. We didn't see any night creatures because of the flashlights in the group. The ground wasn't always even, so it was better to miss the chance to see nocturnal creatures instead of tripping over some root. At the end of the hike, the Rangers wanted to give us a chance to gaze at the night sky through a movable telescope, but it was a new scope and they didn't know how to assemble it. Instead, we went to sleep a little earlier. For our family of three, we only had two sleeping bags, so I slept on a piece of foam cushion. Thanks to the years of living in Viet Nam and the months of living in the refugee camp in Indonesia, sleeping in a tent on the ground wasn't that bad for me. I had cramps in the feet some hour in the night, but that could have come from having my son pinning the feet with his body. According to my wife, most of the time J rolled onto her side of the tent, maybe because of the slope in the campground. Throughout the night, Rangers park employees in pair took turn staying up to be on guard while we enjoyed our sleep. What service!

The next morning I got up around 6:30 because I thought that was when we had to get up. It turned out 7:30 would have been OK. Supposedly, we had to be out of there at 8. Breakfast of yogurt and OJ was served, but we missed it when we came back from brushing our teeth. Again, I didn't mind the odor in the park's public restroom, but the others in my camping party did and brushed outside the bathroom.

The experience is probably not much of a big deal for someone who camped out for real in the wild. Throughout the night, I could here airplanes flying overhead and cars zooming on the nearby Grand Central Parkway. For me, however, it was a great experience. I did go camping with a Vietnamese youth group before, but I think I slept in the car. To have employees of the City cook for us, lend us tent, provide materials for s'mores, lead us on hike, and so on, it made me feel better paying my taxes. Had we camped on Friday night, in the morning (Saturday), we could even join a demonstration of wall and rope climbing, although I doubt I am in good shape to do either.

The only minor quibble I have with the camping program was the lack of info on the web about it. The Department of Parks only said that it was held in Zone 1 of the park and provided a general map of the place. I had the wrong idea that the Adventure Park was near the Alley Pond Environmental Center, but in fact the two are separated by three exits on the Cross Island Expressway. The entrance to the park is right underneath the Grand Central Parkway and looks more like an entrance ramp to the Parkway. Most people may thought so and keep going past it. When we visited the Rangers in their office to say farewell and thank-you, we got some brochures and flyers about the program. Those literatures have the proper driving directions etc., but the web site seriously need to provide better info.

13 July 2007

Board Games in Playground

I recently visited the house of a cousin on the wife's side, in New Jersey. As typical of the suburban Jersey homes, the house has a big backyard. Even better, Cousin left the yard unfenced so that the kids in the adjacent houses were free to roam about the combined yards. It was nice and left me again thinking of someday moving out of crowded Brooklyn. However, lately something I saw on Fridays at Columbus Park in Chinatown made me feel better about living in the big city.

My son still has music class on Fridays. With the extra daylight hours and no Boyscout meeting to rush home for, after music class I normally take him to Columbus Park to let him roam about. Lately, the Department of Parks has some program whereby they provide board games and other equipments for the kids to play with. There was Connect Four and a bunch of other board games to suit every kid's taste. For the artistic ones, there were paper and markers and such. It was nice to see my son mingle with other kids to explore the various playthings provided. On different Fridays, my son would play with different kids at the park. Only in the big city, with many people squeezed into apartments, would you find such programs to bring people together. I should also note that Cousin had to give up taking her kids into Manhattan for music class because it was too much of a hassle to drive into the city on weekends, but there was no qualified music teacher in Jersey.

09 July 2007

Congestion Pricing and Telecommuting

It's good to be able to work from home. Up to now, I have been mostly apathetic about Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan. The plan will charge extra money on drivers who enter Manhattan at certain hours below 86th Street. Proponents say that it will succeed because more people will consider taking mass transportation, but opponents claim that NYC's mass transit is already overtaxed. As I don't drive during the week, or actually rarely drive into Manhattan during the week, and my work hours is 10 to 7, I don't see too many people on the train, so either way it doesn't affect me directly. However, according to a recent Metro article (http://www.readmetro.com/show/en/NewYork/20070709/1/1), part of the congestion pricing plan will include expansion of telecommuting program. Purely from my techie point of view, telecommuting is the answer to all this urban congestion. Surely not everyone will be able to handle telecommuting, such as people who need physical contacts with clients or those who are technically-challenged. For the rest of us, we should be given the choice. I already enjoy the benefit of telecommuting and would love to see it used more widely, just because I think it's a great practice to have. Of course it's easy to abuse the privilege but let's handle that case by case. Too often advances in data transfer ends up costing U.S. workers their jobs. It's time to make use of technology to benefit the U.S. workers.

08 July 2007

Russell Pedersen Playground Re-visit

It is nice to work from home. Yesterday, in the morning Wife took Son to Tae Kwon Do practice then to a friend's house. Then they decided to go to some playground and asked if I could come. Luckily, it was already late in the afternoon. I started the day early so it was almost time to go. About an hour later I was done with work, and already home. No commuting. No taking the PATH to Hoboken to wait around for a long time before the train would go toward 33rd Street. It's probably about five minutes in Hoboken, but altogether, from the time taking the train from Pavonia to Hoboken, sit there and wait, then finally head toward 33rd Street, it always feel like a long time. Of course, you would need to catch the train at the right time, otherwise you would have to wait another twenty minutes for the next train. With telecommuting, as soon as the computer shuts down, I'm done with work.

The place turned out to be Russell Pedersen Playground in Bayridge. I already took Son and cousins there last year. It has plenty of parking space, usable restroom, a set of bars and beams suitable for Olympic competition, and of course it shares the block with Fort Hamilton High School, so the track is nice. I actually ran 2 miles on the track, 1 mile followed by a rest then another mile. After a while, everyone was hungry so we all went to Eighth Avenue's Chinatown for dinner at some Malaysian place. If I had to work in the office, at most I would join the group late at the restaurant instead of having all that quality time outside.

06 July 2007

iGoogle


Making so-called homepages out of the various services offered by a search engine is nothing news. Yahoo! may have been the first to offer the option. It's nice to have in one browser window all the links you normally access through various bookmarks, yet somehow I never bothered with it.

By chance, I came across Google's iGoogle service. For a fleeting moment, I wondered if the Gmail preview gadget can circumvent the firm's blockage of webmail. And indeed it can! It's still just a preview, as trying to open any messages would surely bring up the tsk-tsk message, "Thou shalt not read personal webmail at work". Still, it's nice to see what's in one's Gmail inbox. Theoretically, if there's a message that I really want to read, I can access it on my cell phone - no, it's not an iPhone, I wish. Not that I know for sure that would work. I sent email from my cell phone before but never bother with surfing the web with it. It probably costs a few bucks to squint at web sites on the little cell phone screen.

My iGoogle has a theme, nature, I believe, gas prices, news, calendar and time, joke-of-the-day, and weather. The contents are really just Google Gadgets so you have an almost endless source of things to populate your homepage with.

03 July 2007

ATPM 13.07



Issue 13.07 of the online magazine ATPM has been out, at last. I took on a bigger role with this issue by trying to come up with a cover image but things didn't work as I expected. Originally, I used 3D Maker to try to make a flapping flag with the word ATPM on the flag. It didn't quite work, not to mention the end result was a QuickTime movie, which was difficult to incorporate into the magazine. I went to plan B and, still going with the flag theme, this time it was the U.S.A. flag with stars replaced by the ATPM blue apple. On the foreground, I superimposed the word ATPM as a running sparkler - actually an animgif made from PersonalPaint. I like to make use of old technology where possible and thought this would be a perfect chance to use PersonalPaint on the Amiga, or rather in Amiga emulation mode on the Windoze PC. Alas, PersonalPaint's bitmapped technology didn't translate well into the modern world. The animgif may be fine but the still image was too jaggied for the ATPM editors to tolerate. There's so much PersonalPaint could do, or rather there was only so much time I could devote to exploring it. I couldn't find a way to anti-alias the jaggies and kerning had to be done manually. To make the letters more prominent, I would have to enlarge the image and doing so would exacerbate the issue with the jaggies. In the end, Lee Bennett, one of the Photoshop experts in the ATPM staff, re-did the cover image completely in Photoshop. I still got the credit for the concept but it was Lee and his friend who saved the day. It was mere days before the publication date, but thanks to delay to include iPhone coverage, Lee had a few extra hours to do his magic.

30 June 2007

iWait

Last Friday, after dropping off my son at his music class, I walked about half a mile from Chinatown to SoHo to take a few shots of the iPhone frenzy outside the Apple Store. Lately, I've developed an interest in producing panoramas without the hardware, i.e. without a panoramic camera or lens. The picture above was made from four separate photos. I've learned that panoramas can be made more easily and more convincing if the individuals photos don't have objects in perspective. I actually took a total of six pictures but couldn't use the first two as they wouldn't blend well. Because of the building entrance (near the center of the photo), the long line of prospective iPhone owners was broken up shortly it rounded the corner. I got too easily discouraged and didn't snap more pictures. Perhaps I'll make up for it by capturing the Leopard release in October. Instead of my measly camera phone, I'll bring along a bona fide digital camera.

The panorama was put together using Photoshop Element's Photomerge feature. It did a pretty decent job, even if I had to manually place two photos. I tried other dedicated panoramic software, namely HuginOSX (open source) and DoubleTake (shareware), but didn't quite get it. HuginOSX looks totally incomprehensible to me, while DoubleTake, although raved about by a few bloggers, didn't work well with the set of photos I threw at it. It could be because of my photos.

26 June 2007

Berhala Revisited


I showed my son the drawing I made of Berhala and told him that it was a beautiful island, with beach, palm trees, and so on. He mistakenly thought we were there for vacation and said he wanted to visit it some day. I had to elaborate and explained that we were there as refugees, with little food to eat and lacking many basic needs, like electricity and running water.

The drawing was made on a dry erase board so eventually I had to wiped it away. That's why I scanned it into the computer. The digital copy will be THE original. J decided to reproduce my handiwork on paper. He did a decent job, too. I did tell him about a doctor who for some reason built his own little cave on the mountain. He remembered that piece of detail and showed the house on the mountain on the left. He even made sure the two public toilets were there. He went further and added a rowboat with the oars outside. I am glad to know he has inherited his drawing skill from me.

16 June 2007

Google Docs Redux


I originally played around with Google Docs just to see if it can really someday replace Microsoft Office. I'm among those who love to see Microsoft's monopoly be broken to bring them down. I hoped that Google Docs would succeed one day, but didn't see how that would come about.

Recently, I have the idea of trying to collaborate with my siblings on documenting our journey from Viet Nam to the U.S. Lots of time when we get together, the talk would gravitate to how we managed to survive the boat trip out of Viet Nam, the living condition on the various Indonesian islands served as refugee camps, and our early days in America. Naturally, as we got older the details got murkier. So, before we all become senile, we decided that we should write it all down. Easy said than done. Surely, I can type up something, and I believe I did write it in my PDA. But then one of my sisters live in another state and can only visit us once a year at most. We need a mean for us to collaborate over the Internet and Google Docs is the answer.

My out-of-state sister already has a Google account so it was easy to send her an invitation to our Great American Novel that I've started. I'll just have to help my other sister and my brother open a Google account and then it's all up to them to contribute to the project.

The project will have details like exact dates, or as exact as we can recall, and other personal info, so it's highly unlikely I'll ever publish it for the general public to see. It'll remain a personal project for the four of us to read/edit. No need to give all those crooks on the Internet additional info.

However, from time to time, I'll share some snippets like the one below. Refer to the picture above for the physical features of Berhala Island as described in the text.


Of all the Indonesian islands that we stayed at, to me Berhala is probably the most memorable. It was the first island that we had a place to call home. We were lucky to bump into Grandaunt Luck, whose family was scheduled to be moved to Galang. Instead of selling the hut that they've built for themselves, they let us have it for free. It wasn't much of a home, but there was a front yard with a well to draw water from, a wooden bed for us to sleep on, a shower, and a kitchen area. Everything was made of some forms of woods and coconut leaves covered the roof and the "walls".

The hut was in a dead end street. A few times native Indonesians who wandered into the cul-de-sac would pretend to be visiting and stand around and engage us in broken English. Broken English on both sides, of course, because we ourselves only had a year of English before leaving Viet Nam.

Not too far from us was a stretch of sandy beach that, on the left (if you face the ocean), led back to the boat landing area. Unlike the neighboring Letung Island, Berhala was too small and insignificant to have its own dock. Rowboats would just beach themselves to let the passengers off, then the rower would push the boat back into the water and hop on the boat as the boat reached deeper water. To the right of the beach is one of the two mountains on the island. One time, along with a few other kids of the same age, I went all around both mountains. The mountain nearer to our hut, in whose shadow we lived, ended at the public toilet facing the Tulai Island. I'll arbitrarily call this toilet #2. There's a smaller stretch of beach there, but with the public toilet right there, I doubt if anyone ever bother to wade into the water. The second mountain started where the short beach ended and ended at the other public toilet, the one that faced Letung Island. Again, I arbitrarily assign the #1 designation to this toilet. Somewhere between the toilet #1 and the boat landing was an underwater walkway. On low tide, adults and teenagers could walk from Berhala to Letung. At the deepest point, the water was up to my chest. Back then I had to be already at least five feet tall. I used that walkway at least once. The island's natural beauty was pretty much intact and I was able to see the coral underwater in many places along the walk.

14 June 2007

Crossword Express

It's been more than a week already and I still don't have the offer for the File & Print job. I guess I'll just have to wait for the bureaucrats to do their bureaucratic business.

So a few months ago, I had a renewed interest in doing crossword puzzles. Naturally, I wanted to make them myself. It's one thing to do them and it's quite another to make them. Years ago when I first started playing the puzzle and wanted to make them, I found it to be very difficult. Making the classroom puzzles, in which the shape of the puzzle is not a square and words are not continuous, with one-letter boxes with no definitions allowed, is easy. Making newspaper style where there's a symmetry to the puzzle, with the shortest word length of three, is much harder. I recall buying a DOS crossword maker on 5.25" floppy disk. I even filled out some form, wrote a paper check, mailed the whole thing in, and waited a few weeks for the ware to arrive. I do not recall ever trying the software seriously. I don't know what happened then, I was a single guy with an undemanding job, with no family and few other responsibilities.

Flash forward to the year 2007. This time around I need a Mac program to make the puzzle. There are not that many choices, really. Again, to make classroom puzzles there are a few choices, but I can even use online program like http://puzzlemaker.school.discovery.com/CrissCrossSetupForm.html , no need to spend any money. My search ended with Crossword Express OS X (cwe OS X). While the interface is somewhat awkward and not pretty, it's a strong program that allows for customized dictionaries in addition to standard ones. Choose an existing grid or make your own, plug in some words that you want to be included with their definitions, then cwe OS X will fill in the rest for you. For my purpose, I needed to make a puzzle that includes words about my office life, the CNA exam, and computing in general. I entered the relevant terms and definitions into three separate dictionaries, then used cwe OS X's Construct Special Interest Puzzles feature to make the puzzle. I chose my three custom dictionaries as three sources for the program to draw words from, then whatever open is filled with words drawn from the English dictionary. cwe OS X actually can handle up to four custom dictionaries. If I had more time, I would have created a dictionary just for words related to the Mac.

The puzzle below, printed to poster size, is the current occupant of the whiteboard I usually decorated with my cartoons. I had much fun making up the definitions. For example, "You should get yours up-to-date" is the clue for RESUME. I'm not sure if the acronym PODS made it in, but I know I define it as "It's supposed to help you plan your career, if you are still here a year from now." PODS is the web-based tool to carry out performance review, which in my opinion is just a waste of time. Ideally, the puzzle should be about 21x21 in size and not have one-letter, undefined "word". Unfortunately, such puzzle would contain very few references to the three custom dictionaries. If I have more time, I would define more terms for the custom dictionaries, perhaps then 21x21 puzzle would be better. For now, I have to be content with this Huge gride and the many one-letter undefined words.

For security purpose, I've Photoshopped the picture that represents the puzzle and clues to not have some references to corporate info.

07 June 2007

top-of-the-arch

When I made my first million through Blogger and Google AdSense, my eldest sister wants to get into the act, too. Her blog is at http://top-of-the-arch.blogspot.com , has been raking in tons of money ever since. I simply don't know how she does it...

Seriously, no one I know has become millionaires with Blogger and AdSense. However, it is true my sister has a blog at the link mentioned. Her jumping on the blogging wagon was indeed influenced by my blog. She was already writing regularly for the local media and was thinking of having her own web site to promote her writing, so blogging, for free via Blogger, was the sensible next step.

Whereas my blog entries are not long but more frequent, sis' are long and entered weekly, but very detailed. Armed with Wikipedia and other meatspace reference materials, her entries give her adoring fans exact names and dates, background info etc. Especially when it comes to contact sports. Sis loves football and hockey, plus a dozen other sports. Once in a while, she also sprinkles in a story or two about our early days in the U.S., so if you don't get enough about my early days on U.S. soil, you can get the same story from a different perspective. There were stories that I didn't know at all, whereas there were others that I had an idea of. I suppose if I am her younger sister, we could have a heart-to-heart sister-to-sister chat, but such as the case, I'll just get the story a nugget at a time through her blog.

Do visit top-of-the-arch and click on those context sensitive ads to help finance my sister's goal of seeing the home games of all thirty NHL teams. It'll be a treat if you share her passion for sports, but I'm sure there are other stories you may find interesting.