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


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.