Holiday Gift Guide 2012: Mobile Worker Edition

There’s something about traveling for work that hardens a person and makes them hate their fellow man, at least for the duration of the trip. The stress of getting from point A to B tends to bring out the worst in people and it’s just an unpleasant experience for everyone involved.

 Get out of my way, lady-with-a-stroller. I’m late for my flight and your baby is ugly.

Anything that helps smooth the travel experience is a welcome gift for a frequent traveler. I’ve collected a few items that have made my life easier and would likely please the traveler in your life.

Belkin Mini Surge Protector

Belkin Travel Surge ProtectorThis relatively inexpensive travel accessory has done almost as much to improve traveling as my iPad. It also improves the lives of fellow travelers by changing the conversation from “Give me that outlet or I’ll cut you.” to “Hey, let me plug this in and we can all share.”

The benefit-to-space-consumed/weight ratio is excellent as it’s tiny and easily fits in the side pocket of a backpack. It may seem a bit boring for a gift, but anyone who travels frequently will love it.

Audio Technica Active Noise-Canceling Headphones

Audio Technica Noise Canceling HeadphonesFriends don’t let friends look like tools and wear Beats headphones (Seriously, guy-wearing-giant-purple-headphones, you look like an idiot and you’re a bad person and you should feel bad.)

These Audio Technica’s are perfectly acceptable for an adult to wear and sound great. The noise cancellation works well and drowns out all the annoying children and that shrill, middle-aged woman telling the entire plane and/or coffee shop how much she loves her stupid, little dog.

Planetary Design Travel French Press Mug

Planetary Design French Press MugHotel coffee is for peasants and chumps. It’s low-quality. It’s old and stale. And after listening to Back to Work – Episode 51 I have to assume it falls under the domain of Mann’s Assumption, which is troubling.

Show your favorite, coffee-drinking traveler some love by getting them this French press mug. That way they can be fancy and enjoy their favorite coffee anywhere they go. Actually, it doesn’t matter if they love coffee or not. Just get them this mug and tell them “You like coffee now because I’ll think less of you if you don’t.”

Cloak VPN

Cloak VPNOne of my favorite things to do at airports and coffee shops is fire up a packet sniffer and see what interesting things people are sharing on the public Wi-Fi and then try to match the traffic to the people I see. Bank of America login? Probably that stressed-out business-woman sitting across from me. Grindr login? That old guy over there, sitting next to his wife.

Protect the privacy of your loved ones from jerks like me by giving them the gift of VPN security with a service like Cloak. It will give them a secure tunnel through public Wi-Fi that prevents their web traffic from being intercepted by others sharing the network. I use it on all my devices everywhere I go.

Saddleback Leather Messenger Bag

Saddleback Messenger Bag

“Durable” takes on a new meaning when it comes to travel gear. Most backpacks and luggage labeled as durable last just a few trips and replacing bags isn’t cheap.

That’s one of the reasons I’m pining after this ridiculously durable messenger bag from Saddleback Leather. It’s made by hand out of dead cow and pig, looks like something Indiana Jones would own, and has a 100 year warranty. This is the one item on this list I don’t have and really want. Someone buy it for me for Christmas. I swear, I’ll love you forever.

Game review: Eufloria HD is a relaxing, ambient strategy game

When most people think about strategy games, they probably imagine scenarios pitting orcs against humans, or the U.S. versus the U.S.S.R, or maybe the Vasari versus the Advent. What they probably don’t think of is space battles between rival groups of plants, but that’s the premise of Eufloria HD, a real-time strategy(RTS) game recently ported to iOS from the PC platform.

The idea sounds like it would be goofy and over-the-top, something in the vein of Plants-vs-Zombies, but by using a minimalistic, pastel themed design and a subtle plot, indie developers Alex May, Rudolf Kremers, and Brian Grainger created a game that’s artful and relaxing.

Gameplay

Eufloria’s strategy elements are straightforward, making it a good option for players who are new to the RTS genre. In each level of the game, the player is put in control of a home-base asteroid inhabited by seedlings. These seedlings can be used to create trees that in turn produce more seedlings or to do battle against the seedlings of other asteroids.

The goal of most levels is to take control of the asteroids in the area by defeating rival seedling groups. There are a few levels that switch this formula up by requiring you to protect specific asteroids or produce a certain number of seedlings, but there’s not much variance in gameplay and it’s one of the few criticisms I have of the game. There were very few scenarios that couldn’t be won by just producing a large army of seedlings and overwhelming the enemy.

The Wonder of Life
“The human reproductive cycle” or “Seedlings at war”

There are a few variants of defensive trees and offensive seedlings that can be produced but they don’t have a tremendous effect on the course of the game and in many cases can be ignored. For those that aren’t fans of the sometimes overwhelming number of upgrade options found in more complex strategy games like Command & Conquer this is probably a plus.

At times I found myself missing that type of gameplay depth, but paired with the simple aesthetics of the game the limited options seem to fit. This is a game that you can relax with and not worry so much about the repercussions of the technology research path you chose for your army.

Eufloria contains both a story mode and a skirmish(challenge) mode. Progress in the game’s story unlocks new skirmish challenges. These skirmish levels add replay value to the game and in some cases a little more challenge for those who are looking for it.

Availability & pricing

Eufloria HD is available on both iPhone and iPad through the App Store for $4.99  and the PC for $14.99 through Steam. It is also part of Humble Bundle 4 for Android with pre-release versions available for Android, Mac, and Linux.

Final thoughts

Although the strategy is basic, Eufloria ultimately won me over due to how well the touch interface was implemented – it’s intuitive and fun to use. It’s also a rare type of strategy game that’s easy to jump into and out of, letting you relax on the couch without having to commit to an extended play-session.

I’m honestly not a fan of the game on the PC. There are just too many better, more interesting options like Starcraft if I’m going to be sitting at a desk, but it works well as a touch/mobile game and that’s the platform I would recommend to anyone who’s interested in taking the plunge.

How technology companies are improving voice recognition software

While voice recognition software has certainly improved in the two decades, it hasn’t exactly been the blockbuster tech that Ray Kurzweil predicted. My first experiments with the technology were playing around with Microsoft’s Speech API (circa Windows 95) and early versions of Dragon Naturally Speaking. Both were interesting as “toys” but didn’t work well enough for me to put them to practical use.

Seriously, everything I tell a computer turns into something like this.
Seriously, everything I tell a computer turns into something like this.

Since then, I’ve tried out new voice recognition software every few years and always came away thinking “Well, it’s better. But it’s still not very good.” For fans of the technology, it’s been a slow journey of disappointment. The engineering problems in building practical voice systems turned out to be much harder than anyone thought they’d be.

Human languages don’t follow the strict rules and grammar of programming languages and computer scientists have struggled to build software that can match the intention of someone’s speech to a query or action that can be accurately processed by software. Building code that understands “What is the best way to make bacon?” (Answer: in the oven, just saying.) in the countless number of ways a human might ask the question has been challenging.

Collect ALL the data

One of the tactics used by software engineers to figure out how to handle varied types of input is to build a database of potential input (in this case, human speech) and try to find common threads and patterns. It’s a bit of a brute-force approach, but helps engineers understand what types of input they need to build code for and in cases of similar input, helps reduce the overall code needed.

If you can code your software to know that questions like “What’s it going to be like outside tomorrow?” and “What’s the weather supposed to do?” are both questions about the weather forecast, processing human speech becomes a little easier. Obviously you wouldn’t want to (or even be able to) build code for every possible input, but this approach does give you a good base to build from.

In the past, capturing the volume of data needed to do a thorough analysis of speech wasn’t really an option for voice recognition researchers, cost being a major factor. It was simply too expensive to capture, store, and analyze a large enough sampling of voice data to push research forward.

Leveraging scale

Over the last few years, lowered costs of storage and computing power paired with a much larger population of internet users has made this type of data collection a lot cheaper and easier. In the case of Google (and to some extent Apple), features like Voice Search probably weren’t initially intended to be products in and of themselves, but capture points for the company to collect and analyze voice data so that they could improve future products.

Analysis of a massive database of voice data paired with what are likely some very smart algorithms helped Google build their latest update to Voice Search. For the more scientifically minded, Google’s research site has a lot of interesting information on this analysis work. And as you can see from the video, the results are impressive.

Welcome to the future

For people who have been following voice recognition, the recent uptick in progress is very exciting. Now that the field has gained some momentum, development will likely advance at a rapid pace. The “teaching” component of these systems will improve, enabling them to decipher natural language without human help and more products will include voice interfaces. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally starting to feel like the future.

OLPC’s sci-fi inspired tech replaces human teachers with software

The wise sage, Derek Zoolander, once asked: “How can we be expected to teach children to learn how to read if they can’t even fit inside the building?”

Depending on the context, that might be a fair question, but let’s extend it further. What if there is no school building? Or even a teacher?

For millions of the world’s poorest children, lack of access to schools and teaching staff is an unfortunate reality and has been one of the most difficult problems facing educational non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Much effort has gone into expanding the educational systems in many developing countries but scattered populations, lack of infrastructure, and teacher shortages remain significant hurdles.

A new approach

Children using OLPC's XO laptop
Children using OLPC’s XO laptop – Image Credit: OLPC

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization has been working for the last several years to put low-cost tablets and laptops into the classrooms of developing countries. Recently they began an experiment to see if they could solve the lack of classroom/teacher problem.

Instead of bringing their tablets into an existing school and training a facilitator on how to work them into their curriculum, OLPC technicians drove to a remote village and dropped off sealed boxes of tablets to see what the children there, who had never even seen writing, could figure out on their own. It seems like a crazy idea, but even crazier… it worked.

From MIT’s Technology Review:

I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android.” – Nicholas Negroponte, founder of OLPC

Software from the future

The teaching software responsible for helping the students was the product of OLPC’s Project Nell. Inspired by Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”, OLPC developer, Dr. C. Scott Ananian went to work creating applications that mimicked some of the functionality of “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”, an AI-powered book-device that provided an education to Stephenson’s protagonist, Nell, through the use of stories.

A couple of the apps, Nell’s Balloons and Nell’s Colors, can be demoed on Dr. Ananian’s GitHub repository. Playing through a few minutes of Nell’s Balloons, it’s interesting to watch how the app rapidly presents concepts and builds upon each of the lessons it presents to students. A large amount of cleverness seems to have gone into the app’s creation.

Starting slow with matching colors
Starting slow with matching colors

Having deployed numerous computer labs and learning software packages in schools during my career, I found that the Project Nell apps, while simple on the surface, seem to surpass many of the expensive, commercial learning applications that are popular in U.S. schools.

Just the beginning

It’s still too early to know how OLPC’s new tactic will compare to traditional classroom instruction. More trials are planned and refinement of the Project Nell software continues based on feedback from the initial experiment.

Despite the uncertainty and need for further testing, it’s hard to imagine this as anything but progress towards addressing the classroom/teacher problem. It may ultimately turn out to be just a “better than nothing” solution, but for children who wouldn’t otherwise have any opportunity for an education, it seems like a good place to start.

Game review: Letterpress is an addictive word game crippled by Game Center glitches

The rise of touch-based gaming has brought on a lot of interesting takes on old games as well as completely new gaming ideas, but browsing through Apple’s App Store for word games, there are really only four options: Scrabble, crossword puzzles, hangman, and the various clones of each. Even the popular Words With Friends is just a better implementation of Scrabble than the official Scrabble app.

It’s not a category where you’ll find much innovation other than developers pushing the limit on how many descriptors they can cram into the name of their game or social network sharing buttons they can wedge into the game interface.

Honestly, who isn’t excited about “Angry Chicken Halloween Edition Phrase Friend Sharing Fun Time HD Free” that shares every word you play with all your buddies on Friendster?

For those of us who’ve been disappointed by the sorry state of iOS word games, there’s a new game to get excited about. Letterpress by atebits, is an addictive word game that brings freshness to the category by focusing on simplicity and pushing strategy to the forefront.

A minimalist game
Image Credit: atebits

Gameplay

For Letterpress, atebits went back to the basics and built a stripped-down game that’s similar to Scrabble in concept, but plays much differently in practice.

Players are presented with a 5-by-5 tiled game board from which they must assemble words in order to take control of tiles. Points are awarded for each claimed tile, but unlike Scrabble, tiles can be stolen, subtracting from the opposing player’s score. You can protect tiles you’ve claimed by also capturing the surrounding tiles. The opposing player can still use your protected tiles during their turn, but those tiles don’t award them any points and aren’t shifted to their control.

This back-and-forth, tile stealing dynamic adds a layer of strategy to the game that levels the playing field between players with differing levels of vocabulary and helps prevent the one-sided play that sometimes occurs in Scrabble. If you’re someone who normally doesn’t fair well at word games, it’s entirely possible to win Letterpress with strategy alone.

So Ugly.
So Ugly. ™

Matchmaking for Letterpress is done via Apple’s Game Center, and so far this has been the source of most complaints about the game in App Store reviews. During peak playing times, submitting a turn or trying to start a new game will often result in a time-out error. This issue seems to have lessened somewhat since the game’s release but still occurs often.

The glitches aren’t enough to completely spoil the fun of the game, but it is annoying to sometimes have to wait until the morning after you submitted a turn to know if it actually made it through Apple’s servers.

Another personal quibble, although minor, is the game’s icon, which is perhaps the ugliest app icon ever created and seems out-of-place given the rest of the game’s clean visual style.

Availability & pricing

Letterpress is available on iOS devices running version 5.0 or newer. The game is free but requires a $0.99 upgrade if you want to have more than two games going at once or additional color themes.

Final thoughts

When Apple launched Game Center in the fall of 2010 the consumer response was fairly lackluster. The app had an ugly, skeuomorphic design that mimicked a felt card table – something many iOS users have never even seen. There wasn’t an easy way to get your Facebook or Twitter contacts into the app and once you actually had some contacts loaded, there really wasn’t much else you could do.

Needless to say, developers haven’t exactly flocked to Game Center, opting to build their own matchmaking services or leveraging third-party options like OpenFeint. Choosing to tightly integrate Letterpress with Game Center was a risk for atebits that will hopefully be rewarded as Apple builds up the underlying infrastructure for Game Center to handle the popularity of the game.

Game review: Super Hexagon requires your full attention and brain capacity

Many of the best video games are immersive. They pull us in, disconnect our brains from the real world, and let us pretend, at least for a while, that we are wizards, superheroes, or Italian plumbers.

Some game-makers achieve this effect by using fancy graphics or creating expansive, complex environments. Others, like Terry Cavanagh (who also created the excellent VVVVVV), skip all the fluff and just go straight to work rewiring your brain.

Cavanagh’s new game, Super Hexagon, forcefully pulls you from the real world by requiring your full attention and brain capacity.

Super Hexagon

Gameplay

The premise of Super Hexagon is simple; so simple, in fact, that it’s difficult to categorize. Cavanagh has labeled it as an action game, but that doesn’t really seem to fit. It’s more of a twitch-maze-dungeon-runner.

Your mission is to avoid the walls of a moving, hexagon-shaped maze. Success is measured by how long you survive. Sounds simple, right? Just watch the game trailer:

When you first start playing, it seems impossible. My first attempt lasted only 2.26 seconds. The next several attempts weren’t much better. After days of playing, I’m finally up to 25 seconds on Hard mode, the lowest difficulty level.

Acknowledging that the game isn’t easy seems to be Cavanagh extending an olive branch to gamer egos. Easy, Medium, and Hard modes have been replaced with Hard, Harder, & Hardest (Hexagon, Hexagoner, & Hexagonest respectively). Three increased difficulty modes are available via unlocks.

There is a balance to the difficulty. Super Hexagon is tuned to allow for small improvements that help you feel that you are getting better versus just bashing your head against a wall. I also found that the less I thought about my moves and tried to anticipate incoming walls, the better I performed.

This is where the immersion part comes in. While playing around the 10 second mark, I usually start to feel a sort of twich-zen clear out my mind. It’s a really odd feeling that reminds me a lot of my days playing Quake 3 Team Arena, when I’d hit “the zone” that unlocked seemingly inhuman speed and accuracy by filtering out everything but the dot of my scope and players’ heads.

An excellent chiptune soundtrack helps round out the immersive effect and matches the game perfectly.

Availability & pricing

Super Hexagon is available on iOS devices for $2.99 through the App Store. PC and Mac versions are in the works with a possible Android port.

Final thoughts

“In my day, video games were hard. They required skill. They required chutzpah. They required finely-tuned reflexes and hand-eye coordination. You kids, with your plants and your zombies and your fancy hats – you don’t know games. You’re too soft.”

– Me, as I hit “Try Again” for the thousandth time.

How to delete application caches in Mac OS X

If you’re struggling with a crashing Mac app or just trying to clean-up the remnants of an uninstalled program, deleting application caches can be a good place to start.

Application caches are used by both native and third-party applications to store temporary information (like a recently visited webpage) and speed up load times. In general, caching is a good thing – it makes applications faster. But sometimes a problem with a piece of cached information or a software bug can have the opposite effect – causing applications to load slowly or even crash.

An example of when you might need to delete an application cache is Google Chrome getting stuck in a re-launch loop. Occasionally, and especially with beta versions of Chrome, the browser will error out on a webpage that is trying to load from the cache. Although it should prompt to ask if you want to try loading the page that’s causing the issue, sometimes this doesn’t happen and the browser gets stuck in a loop. Clearing out the Chrome application cache will often resolve the issue.

Clearing an application cache

OS X stores cashed application data in the ~/Library/Caches folder. If you’re using a pre-Lion version of OS X you can simply browse to this folder in Finder.

From the Finder bar Go –> Library –> Caches will get you where you need to be.

Navigating to the Library Folder

Starting in Lion, Apple chose to hide the Library folder from users. The easiest way to access the Library folder is to click Go on the top Finder bar, hold down the ALT/Option key on your keyboard, and the Library folder should appear as an option in the drop-down list. Click Library, then Caches.

Inside the Caches Folder
The folder for Adium, an instant messaging application, has been highlighted as an example.

Once you’re in the Caches folder, deleting a cache is the same as deleting any other file or folder on OS X. Just drag the cache folder for the application you’re having issues with to the Trash or right click and select the Move To Trash option.

Things to keep in mind

While some advocate clearing out the entire cache folder on a regular basis, this is not generally recommended. Most applications manage their own cache fairly well without user intervention. Although you won’t cause any long-term damage to OS X, deleting caches unnecessarily may cause slow load times until each application rebuilds a new cache.

Caches are meant to be used for temporary, unimportant application data. However, some developers will store preference files in the Caches folder instead of the ~/Library/Preferences/ folder. Although it’s not common practice, if you’re concerned about losing custom application preferences it’s a good idea to check the cache folder you’ve targeted for deletion for .plist files before deleting it.