30 November 2008

Reunion With Reunion

When I came back to NYC from my recent trip to Toronto to attend an uncle's funeral, one of the first thing I did was to re-visit Reunion, the Mac genealogy software. During the trip I spent some time with relatives who I didn't keep in touch regularly and learned all about the different names and relationship then wanted to have a way to track them

I used MacFamilyTree (MFT) to maintain an extensive family tree but got sidetracked and haven't updated the tree in a while. Since then Reunion came out with a new version, #9, while MacFamilyTree evolved into #5 under a new company. MacFamilyTree 5's new interface is just too different for my taste. Before I went the MFT way, I did use Reunion and was totally frustrated by its lack of support for Unicode. Being ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, many of my relatives, alive and dead, have either a Vietnamese name, a Chinese name, or both. Equally ridiculous was the fact that Reunion 8 couldn't sort siblings by their year of birth, but instead sort by some internal ID assigned by the program as people are added. Genealogy work is intensive and one does not always have all the info. Once in a blue moon you would have all the names of all the people in a family and their birth order in the family. If I at least know that someone has a sibling then I would create the sibling with some placeholder year of birth. Most of the time the siblings are entered in random order, so using the internal ID to sort the siblings rarely works. MFT was smart enough to use the birth date to sort siblings and also supports Unicode so I went with it. One thorny issue with both MFT and Reunion was printing. Neither was able to properly handle page breaks and people's faces would often than not be split on two pages. As I used MFT more often, I was also annoyed by its printing of people's names on their faces in a certain tree view. Weird how these things not excluded in the final product. So I was OK with MFT but I always wished there would be something else.

When Reunion 9 first came out, I downloaded the demo but never gave it try. Recently, I put it through its pace and really liked it. Unicode is now included so all the Chinese and Vietnamese names can be entered as aliases. Both MFT and Reunion support aliases, but only with Reunion can I customize a tree view to show the aliases. With MFT, I had to include the aliases as part of the last names for them to be included in the tree view, quite a contrite workaround. Sibling sorting in Reunion 9 is now possible, although it's a manual process - not a show-breaker. The nicest thing with Reunion 9 is the Move Boxes Off Page Break option. What intelligence! I have it on by default and no boxes would ever be split across pages. While my printed trees are not on one sheet of plotter paper but instead spread across multiple 8.5" x 11" pages, it is easy to tape them together and nobody's face is ever cut in half. Within a day of testing, I upgraded my Reunion 8 to version 9. I was worried that I didn't have the serial number for Reunion 8 but it turned out it was not needed. The upgrade version simply looked for the installed app for 8 or the original CD, which I had.

Because of privacy issue, I cannot post the real tree here but perhaps I'll make one for the Solo and Skywalker families. Time to make good use of the Star Wars The New Essential Guide To Characters, I suppose.

24 November 2008

Học Một Sàng Khôn?

There is a saying in Vietnamese that goes "Đi một ngày đàng, học một sàng khôn". The almost literal translation is "Spend a day on the road and you learn an amount of smart knowledge," or a better translation would be "By traveling one learns about the world". I surely learned a thing or two on my recent weekend getaway to Toronto to attend an uncle's funeral.

I have attended a few funerals, for people my in-laws know, for people I know, and of course my own late father's. At all those funerals, people would donate money to help cover the cost of the funeral. Nothing, yet, can bring a dead person back to life, and a funeral costs money, lots of money, so it is practical to donate money to help with the funeral. I am not rich and most people I know are not rich either so I have yet to attend any funerals where money was not accepted. On this recent trip, I learned that some people would not take the money, even if they can very well use it, purely because doing so would bring debt to the dead person. Supposedly his soul would then be burdened by this debt and won't go where souls are supposed to go.

Interestingly, many Vietnamese believe that when people die they will reincarnate into some other lives. Supposedly, it would be better to be reborn into wealthy family. Conversely, it would be bad to be reborn as an animal, as animals are either made to perform manual labors or are eaten for their meat. I am no Buddhist scholar, but I know that it is not true that it is good to have a better life in your second life. The goal is to have no life at all! Really. Living inside a body of flesh and blood is simply awful, regardless whether you are the pampered prince of a wealthy family or you are the hard-working farmer who wakes up at 3 A.M. with the water buffalo. The goal is to leave your flesh and become free, kinda like Obi-Wan Kenobi melding with the Force.

Another thing I learned was that if a person died before the parents, it is considered a sin, something disrespectful to the parents. In Vietnamese funeral, the grieving parties wear white bands around the head. In the case of a disrespectful child, at the wake, the dead child, lying in the coffin, would have to have a white band placed near his head, supposedly to symbolize the dead person wearing for his parents. Superstition defies logic, as wouldn't some elderly people object to that as a signal to hasten their demise, trù ẻo or bad wishes? Whatever, tradition also dictates that the parents should whip the coffins three times to punish the child for "going" ahead of them.

The Vietnamese word khôn in the title means smart or intelligent. I would not say the two things I learned above make me smarter or more intelligent. I'm a computer geek and am aware that knowledge is power, although their usefulness can be doubtful. In case I come across similar scenarios, I can act accordingly and avoid being treated like an ignoramus. As an atheist who believes "chết là hết", or "Death is the end of all", none of this means much to me.

16 November 2008

Walter Walter Everywhere!

Here's my latest ViquaGames HideNSeek game. I got a kick out of overlaying the word Walter, in various shapes and colors, onto a photo of the cascade at St. Anne Canyon in Quebec, from a vacation a few years ago. In case you don't know, Walter Wick is the photographer who made all those beautiful photos in the I Spy book series. Jean Marzolo supplied the riddles that accompanied the puzzles. At some point the pair went their separate ways and Wick continued with a new series called Can You See What I See?

I resisted the temptation of making the objects totally blend into the background. I find it very annoying when I play games people make that way. I consider it cheating. It is one thing to make the objects hard to find, but it is something else when the object is totally invisible because its color totally matches that of the background.


13 November 2008

Veteran's Day 2008

Every year I hear in the news how few people turn out for Veteran's Day Parade. I was going to just call a Vietnam vet friend but then happened to see on 1010WINS that the parade would run until 3 PM. I had to wait for my son to do his homework and have lunch so we got there around 2 PM. Sure enough, unlike the Thanksgiving Parade where people pack the parade route, you can see that there were not that many people. Maybe there was a bigger audience early in the day. How about making a note to yourself to be at your local parade next year?

11 November 2008

ViquaGames' HideNSeek Games

My Son loves the I Spy game genre. He has all the I Spy hardcover books as well as the Can You See What I See? series. With me being a computer geek, he naturally also gets to play the I Spy software. While Scholastic is slow in churning out the computer games, many other companies fill the void. Son has games from the Travelogue 360 series, Little Shop, Hidden Object Game Show, and a few others.

One of the old Scholastic title has a puzzle-maker built in but it runs in Mac Classic mode and can only be used off the computer and not shared on the web. Come on now, we have Web 2.0 for a while now, you would think there's a website out where you can upload your own background then sprinkle it with your own objects. Unfortunately, it seems ViquaGames.com's HideNSeek Creator is the closest thing. You can load your own background alright, but the objects are canned. I must admit it is no easy task to cut the objects out of their original backgrounds. I am pretty sure plug-ins like AKVIS Chameleon can be of great help. It would be great to be able to use one's own pictures for the object. Perhaps ViquaGames can offer the service, for a fee, to do the hard work of cutting the objects out the user-submitted photos. I am sure some pet owners would love to see their own pets blended into the background, instead of some canned chihuahua. I ran the idea by ViquaGames, maybe some day they'll implement it.

Son and I put together this second HideNSeek I created under the username qqwerty. Enjoy!

08 November 2008

OverDrive Video Optimizer Sucks

Some time ago I saw a flyer at a branch of the New York Public Library touting an online library where one can borrow movies and more. I knew not to expect to find the latest Hollywood blockbusters available, but I do watch really old, classic movies from time to time. I never found the time to actually try to borrow any movies, until recently when my son became interested in the classic Short Circuit. It's been 22 years since the movie came out, it should be old enough to be in any library's online collection. It is indeed, but the only hurdle is that the required software runs on Windoze only. Fine, that's what I got Parallel for. I have enough of Windoze at work and don't want any at home, but the sad truth is that there are software out there that only runs on Windoze.

First I had to download the OverDrive Media Console software. Because I don't use Windoze much on the Mac via Parallel, I also had to download Windows Media Player. Through the Brooklyn Public Library's eMedia site, I downloaded some .ODM file that is supposed to lead me to the movie Short Circuit. Although the web site said that it's over 500 MB, it downloaded very quickly. Turned out it's kinda like those BitTorrent file.

Since I installed Windows Media Player after OverDrive, I automatically thought WMP would be used for opening the ODM file. To make matter worse, WMP did not flat out refuse to load the file but instead offer to try it anyway. Of course, it failed. Next, I managed to open the ODM file with OverDrive but then it complained about some WMP security being outdated. The error message did say that I would have to do something under the Tools menu of OverDrive, but because the outdated security was with WMP, I went to WMP and naturally couldn't find any options to update the security setting. To make things worse, the default fancy skin for WMP didn't readily show a Tools menu, you would have to switch to Classic skin first. It would be so nice to have the Check For Updates menu option like all Mac apps. Finally, I got OverDrive to update WMP's security, and the only hurdle was to download the large file for viewing. Yup, when I loaded the ODM file and clicked Play, it didn't automatically go ahead and download the file then play, but instead had to present an error window. Why can't the software just do whatever necessary to get the movie to be played?

What a painful experience that was. Compared that to the typical purchasin experience with the iTunes Music Store and I can see why the iTMS is popular. I have no idea how many use the eMedia service, but if it can be streamlined a lot more more people will make use of the resource.

01 November 2008

Ass-Backward Securities

I could not have drawn the Halloween 2008 cartoon without the help of This American Life. In episodes 355 (The Giant Pool of Money) and 365 (Another Frightening Show About the Economy), Ira Glass explained as simply as possible all the financial terms like asset-backed securities and default credit swaps. Working in a the computer support department of a financial firm, I come across these terms all the time. To me they are just a bunch of abstract terms. I think of them in terms of what resources on the network they use, not how they affect the lives of people. I know the asset-backed securities group was the first to migrate off those ailing qtrees, onto a share created at the volume, with 3 qtrees under the share. Default credit swaps still hasn't made their move, although I might have already Robocopied their data for them. Commercial paper? Those people are outside the Investment Bank umbrella and have their own, way better organized shared drives. Just a J: drive and at most an M: or K: drive, not the alphabet soup that the IB people drag around from legacy domain to strategic.

I still don't fully understand all the terms that Ira Glass mentioned, but I have a less vague idea of what they are. Give This American Life a try if you have never listened to it. For me it is hard to catch it on the radio so I subscribe to the podcast in iTunes.