Waiting…

23andMe DNA Collection Kit
For a few years now I have been fighting off the temptation to plunk down some cash for genetic testing from 23andMe, but every year they made it harder to resist.

I have seen the price come down time and time again. I almost pulled the trigger last year when it went down to $199 bucks. Then this year they finally got me – on DNA Day they had a special deal – the sample collection kit was FREE for the day with only money you pay is the shipping and a one year commitment to a subscription service that was 9 bucks a month.

So needless to say, the kit was ordered that day, I provided my spit that day and sent it back ASAP. According to their web site I have to wait 6 to 8 weeks for the results but I know some people who got it a lot sooner. So now I am just waiting for it with my curiosity burning away!

When I finally get the kit I will do a full review of the service along with plenty of pictures and screenshots.

Cheers,
–Jon

Q1 Progress

Flowers Spring is finally here even if by the colder than normal temperatures you wouldn’t know it. I started the year on a mission to completely change to a more healthy lifestyle.

So far so good. I eat a low carb diet (<30 grams of carbs) Sunday through Friday, and Saturday is my "cheat day" where I eat what I'd like and enjoy myself. For the most part Sunday through Friday I am eating no sugar products at all, staying away from starches and glutens and primarily eating a diet focused on healthy proteins and fats. Chicken, beef, turkey, eggs. For greens mostly spinach and broccoli. I also gave up on drinking calories - chocolate milk, mochas from Starbucks, etc. If I get thirsty now I reach for water or unsweetened iced tea or green tea. Here are some of the numbers so far: Weight
January 1: 261.2
March 31: 212.4

Resting Heart Rate
January 1: 90bpm
March 31: 57bpm

BF (body fat percentage via bioelectrical impedance)
January 1: 34%
March 30: 20%

Fasting Blood Glucose levels
January 1: 110 (pre-type 2 no bueno)
March 31: 80 (healthy range)

VO2 Max (ml/kg/min)
January 12: 26
March 30: 48

Blood pressure is pretty consistently around 110/70 too both before and after.

Overall I am pleased with the metrics. Still have a LONG way to go and the pace of weight loss has been slowing down as of late. The next 25-30 pounds will be tough, but I am optimistic I can and will do it.

Hardest part is getting yourself into the mindset that not only is it the right thing to do but that you can actually do it. Once you get to that point mentally the rest falls into place. And once you see results, it becomes quite easy to stick to the routine.

Cheers,
–Jon

Android App Goodness: doubleTwist’s AirSync

doubeTwist Library
The main music library screen in doubleTwist

Over the last 7-8 months I have become a pretty hardcore Android fan. From the statistics I am most definitely not the only one. Not many platforms can claim 3,130% growth in a year!

I absolutely love the OS, the open nature of the platform, and the plethora of apps that have been coming out for it in recent months. As the platform has matured and gained market share (and along with it development resources and investment dollars) the quality and usefulness of applications has really improved as well.

AirSync Options Screen
AirSync Options Screen

One of my new favorite apps is doubleTwist. doubleTwist is a free media player for Android that I’d rank as one of the better ones. There is also a desktop version I use on my Mac that is basically an iTunes replacement that is currently free, though if you like it you can donate to the developers.

An optional but VERY cool addon app that they sell for Android called AirSync expands the functionality of doubleTwist to allow wireless syncing over wifi. It is currently on the Android market for $4.99 and is a real gem. I absolutely recommend it as it is really useful and at $4.99 it is hard to beat the value. Never hurts to support an excellent developer who does great work either 🙂

Installing the client on my Mac was painless and I have it set to use the same location as iTunes for the library. So if I buy a song on iTunes or on Amazon it is available to either application seamlessly.

Once I installed the doubleTwist player and AirSync on my HTC G2, the first thing it does is gives me a passcode. This passcode is entered into the doubleTwist application on my Mac to pair up them up so that they may sync over my WiFi network.

doubleTwist Passcode Pairing

So far, so good. All very easy. Next I created a simple test playlist, AirSync Test. For my test I selected only the AirSync Test playlist, and pressed sync and boom. Over a fast WiFi connection it synced my four test songs in a couple of seconds. The playlist and songs were now identical on both my Android phone and my Mac laptop.

You can also set this to be automatic as well so that anytime your computer is running doubleTwist and your phone connects to the same WiFi subnet they will check in with each other and will sync up automatically. Unless you have a lot of space on your device you will probably want to specify specific playlists for it to sync otherwise by default it will try to sync it ALL.

doubleTwist Playlist

One thing to note – while doubleTwist can play files encoded in both MP3 and Apple’s AAC, it won’t play the .m4p files from iTunes, only the .m4a files. The .m4p file extension is for songs still protected with Apple’s FairPlay digital rights management and can only be played within iTunes or Apple approved devices such as the iPod or iPhone. Thankfully, all music purchased on iTunes since March 2009 no longer has this restriction giving us the ability to play our music on other devices such as our Android phones.

doubleTwist Sync

I have been getting a lot of use out of this lately syncing tunes onto my phone for the car. Many new cars these days like my 2011 Honda Civic EXL come with a USB connector for use with media players.

At this point I simply connect the G2 to the cable on my phone, click the “turn on USB storage” button when prompted, then click the Aux button on the car’s stereo. Now I can play songs through the car’s stereo directly from my Android phone, navigate tracks, set volume etc via the steering wheel controls.

Playlist on Android

The only thing I have not quite figured out when using my Android phone with the car stereo is making track names show up on the display like they do when I use the iPod with the car. I am not sure if it is an issue with how files are set up on the phone’s USB storage or if it is something proprietary it happens to do with the iPod.

This is one of those projects I plan to research when I get some free time.

Cheers,
–Jon

New Year, Same Goals

261.2 It’s that time of year again – the first of the year when we all start out focused on our New Year’s resolutions usually only get derailed before January is through.

I am just as guilty as the next person of these lapses and unfortunately once I fall off the wagon it is hard for me to get back on if at all. Big difference this year though is that my life (or the quality there of) really depends on my follow-through this time.

This year I am trying yet again focused on a goal of not just losing weight, but becoming a much healthier, fit person. The number above (261.2) is my current weight as of today, January 1st 2011. I was kind of shocked when I weighed myself because as recently as this fall when I was making an effort to be more active and watching what I eat I was down to 230 or so. So I really let it go bad the past few months.

During in my senior year of high school back in 1992 I was at 180 pounds and much more fit due to playing ice hockey in multiple leagues, roller hockey, etc. I did not have a good diet but did have an eighteen year-old’s metabolism.

Now I am 37 but feel like I am 57. I have not been nearly as active as I would like to be or should be. I do not like the way I look and I am tired of feeling tired all the time.

So for this year the goal is to get down to my senior year weight of 180 or so along with a target of 12% or less BMI (I won’t mention what it is now because it is REALLY bad) and ultimately develop a healthier lifestyle that I will stick with.

Wish me luck! I will be posting more details on methods and progress as the year goes on.

Cheers,
–Jon

My Tracks

Since having converted to the Cult of Android in May, I have been on the lookout for great, useful apps that enhance my experiences in some way. I am not one for installing any odd shit on my phone. Hell I think I still have less than 20 apps installed outside of the stock apps my phone came with.

One app that I had never heard of until a friend mentioned it is Google’s own My Tracks. In a word, this app is awesome.
My Tracks on Android - Map

I should also mention, My Tracks is also available for iPhone but I have not used it on that platform yet so my focus here is on the Android version.

In a nutshell, the app can record your movement, or “tracks” using GPS and then allows you to share the map on Google Maps for others to see (or not.)

When you record your track, you can set markers for landmarks or points of interest along the way. So for example, say you take a hike in the woods and find something really cool like an old abandoned car, you can tag that spot with a marker and give it a description and it will be easier for others to find.

This functionality has made it a useful app for geocaching and some folks are even using it to track locations of shipwrecks.

Google My Tracks on Android - Stats View

Another use for this application is for fitness – runners, walkers, bikers etc.

While not explicitly designed for runners like Nike+, using Google’s My Tracks app does not require any special sensors or special shoes since it relies on a GPS signal to plot it’s data. And it is hard to beat the price as My Tracks is free.

The screenshot to the left shows a stats view from a track I recorded walking around Plainsboro Preserve. It shows distance traveled, time, pace etc all interesting. It also shows elevation statistics such as high, low, gain etc. Unfortunately though from researching that aspect it seems that GPS accuracy is less than ideal.

I have been using the app quite a bit just walking/jogging to see how my pace is compared to a previous time. I can keep multiple track recordings on my Android phone to compare information and determine if I am making any improvement in my pace and with some basic math figure out an estimate of calories burned if I wanted to.

My Tracks Android App - Share Track Screen

A cool feature I mentioned briefly above is the ability to share the track you recorded. Say you went for an off-the-trail hike in the woods, found some nice sights and wanted your friends to be able to re-trace your path? Well you can have the app send the track via email to your friends, or share it to Google’s own Google Maps service and from there set the map to public or private. Sadly no option to save it to any third-party sites such as Facebook or Twitter, though I suppose there might be a reason for that.

Here is an uploaded track I recorded on Google Maps.

On the map you will notice I set some markers such as “Maggie’s Trail” – every time you set a marker on the mobile My Tracks app it also stores metadata on the cell phone signal quality, carrier, tower etc. Most likely not too interesting to you unless you are a pretty hardcore geek (which some of us are lol.)

Google Map created by My Tracks Android App

There are probably other uses I will figure out over time, but as it is now this is quite a useful and fun app.

Definitely worth a download from the Android Market .

–Jon

Foursquare for what?

Foursquare's home page
Foursquare's home page

I consider myself adventurous when it comes to new interactive services and usually always try out the next “new” thing if anything just to satisfy my curiosity. It is always an interesting journey to see what ideas take off and which ones flounder into obscurity.

My most recent experiment is the location-based social networking service Foursquare. While not bleeding-edge brand new (it launched sometime in Spring 2009) it has really gained some momentum lately and some friends of mine started using it so I figured what the hell and signed up to give it a spin.

An added bonus was when I discovered they had an Android app. As a recent convert to the world of Android this past May when I bought my HTC Droid Incredible I figured this would be a nice experiment to see how well they implemented this service on both web and handheld.

In a nutshell, Foursquare allows you to post, or “check-in” at a location to say you visited, see who else has visited, and who has visited that venue the most (the “mayor”) as well as leave tips or shouts about a venue, ie “Try the Triumph burger it is for the win!”

Visiting a location frequently or visiting a certain number of different venues unlocks profile badges. One badge for example is called Local and is awarded for checking into the same venue three times in one week.

Foursquare profile page
Foursquare profile page

These badges you earn are visible on your Foursquare profile as seen in my screenshot on the left so everyone can see where you have visited or what things you have done. In some cases they even have special badges for an event such as the World Cup or NBA Finals.
 
The idea is that you can add your friends and see where they are checking in and maybe meet up with them (go go stalker service? lol) or find new things to visit you might not have know about or thought of. In some cases you might get a badge for visiting a featured location like a specific restaurant or historical location.
 
That is basically what it is in it’s current incarnation. I can see a lot of potential revenue-generating angles for them to add to the service over time and with that huge batch of Series B capital they just closed on I am expecting/hoping to see some big enhancements and changes in the coming months.

Right now it is sink or swim for them. When they were little no one heard of them. Now that they are pushing 2 million users they are on the radar of all the big guys – Google, Facebook, Microsoft etc.

Now getting back to the basics of Foursquare – as it stands right now other than it being yet another social network to have to keep tabs on, I have not found a real benefit or value to using it at this time.

It is a simple question that I have not found an answer for yet – for what reason should I use Foursquare?

I have been browsing profiles on Foursquare to see who is doing what and I have come to the conclusion that many people fit into two camps. People like myself giving it a try out of curiosity and people who are egotistical nerd super-achievers who are mayors of like a dozen locations and have many hundreds of check-ins and badges.

Right now though it seems the balance of value is on Foursquare’s side. They get all this absolutely delicious location-specific data from their users that marketers would be delighted to buy access to. They have people willingly going to venues and saying I was here at this time.

I am not really into badge collecting. I am not one for wanting people to be right on my tracks so I don’t turn on stuff on my phone that lets most people know where I am at any given time. And I don’t see the point of checking in to places I visit right now.

None of this is to say the service is awful or bad or that it has no potential – quite the contrary. I think a location-based service such as Foursquare has huge potential but right now it seems they are missing the mark.

The bread & butter of their service will be the mobile apps. For the most part their web site is not even really needed other than as a desktop portal.

With that in mind let’s check out the Android app. (Note that they also make apps for iPhone, Blackberry and Palm as well.)

Foursquare's Android App - Friend Screen

When you launch the app, the first screen you get shown is the “friend screen” – I understand why they did this but as you can see in my screenshot this screen is nearly useless. Out of the few friends I have added, only Jeff has his app/phone set to show his current location.

I would have either made the screen more user-specific – ie you see only recent friend check-ins nearby or even better (at least in my opinion) I would have made the default screen a “places near my location” type of deal. As they add more features to the service they could even make the main entry view more of a portal such as showing a restaurant near you that is having a special a special on wings for every run the Yankees score tonight or the museum nearby is offering half-off today. Or even the local library promoting a reading event.

Foursquare's Android App - Places Screen

There is a lot of room to enhance the places view as well.

For example, in this screenshot from my phone on the left imagine how much more useful it would be if it had star ratings right on this screen. Not just one either – like one from users, maybe one from Zagats, AAA or some other relevant service.

So a scenario would be I am in city visiting for work or whatever, I’d pull out my phone, fire up the app, give the GPS a moment to lock in my location and pull on the list and say “oh look a 5-star burger joint is only 100 meters up the road.” Or say I am out at 3 am with some friends and I want to find a place that is actually open, give me a preference to filter places to show places to eat that are within 1000 meters and open at this very moment.
 
Hell they could even cross-market or partner with someone like Urbanspoon or Yelp to get some venue-specific data if needed.

Foursquare's Android App - Venue Screen

The venue screen to the left is a prime example of an under-utilized screen. Not only could they have the ratings I mentioned earlier there, they could/should feature relevant data such as phone number, hours, etc. There is another tab called Tips that has user-submitted blurbs but most venues have very few if any.

One of the downsides to allowing people to add venues is that there is a lot of shady data. One pizza place near me exists in the database three times – because three people added it with differently spelled names.

Superusers (the most active users) can supposedly edit the venues now but as I am not a superuser I am unable to see how this works or if I can merge multiple listings into one.

Another issue is people adding their own house. In the suburbs it is not as bad but in a city like NYC with some tall vertical residences you end up with stacks of peoples’ homes mixed in with the legit listings. I don’t know Omar or David nor do I care to know they live at XYZ and I doubt I will be checking in there.

I understand why they allowed people to add venues, but it seems to me they lost some of their control in doing so.

Foursquare's Android App - Venue Map Screen
I found the maps for venues to not always be accurate either which I am guessing has a lot to do with random users adding said venues. If you go to add a venue and your GPS is off by a 50 meters or so the map rendering itself won’t be correct.

Fortunately most venues I have checked into are in their proper place, but I have found a few that are not and as far as I can see there is no way through the app to report a venue as being inappropriate, closed, or erroneous in some way.

Even a simple button to click and report it so that they could at least follow up somehow or just remove a venue if it turns out it does not belong and help them maintain better data integrity. Nothing can be more terrible for a service like this than invalid or irrelevant data. People are impatient and if they encounter it often enough they might say hell with it and not use Foursquare.

Foursquare's Android App - Venue Check-In Screen

This final screenshot here shows the actual venue check-in screen.

This is where you see how they tie in with other social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter.

Some folks may choose to broadcast this info out to their accounts and friends. Others won’t. All comes down to one’s own personal privacy preferences.

Location-aware services are still in their infancy and we are rapidly learning about how they can open up a whole other can of worms for privacy and safety.

For example, earlier this year a site named Please Rob Me threw together a page to show when people were not at home based on their updates to Foursquare and other social networking services.

Anytime you share info about yourself or friends on the web you are compromising your privacy some. It is up to each and every one of us where we the line is for too much sharing.

A service such as Foursquare is not exactly without privacy issues itself either.

So what’s the verdict? It is a decent concept and implementation but it is rough around the edges.

For me it is that the service does not offer me enough of a benefit to use it at this time. As the disclaimer goes though, your mileage may vary and judging by some of the profiles I have seen there are no doubt some very active, content users.

I think we will see a lot coming out of the Foursquare folks in the coming months. Their service shows a lot of promise. For now I am keeping my account on there but probably won’t be actively checking in to anything.

Hopefully they will give me something cool to write about in the near future.

Cheers,
–Jon

Fun With Netscape 1.0

Spring is in the air and with that comes Spring cleaning. For the computer geeks among us this is also the time we clean off hard drives, go through old disks, etc.

I decided to go through some old CD’s and Zip disks I had stashed away and came across some old-school stuff, including this gem:

Welcome to Netscape
Welcome to Netscape

That there is the “Welcome” screen from version 1 (actually 1.1) of Netscape Navigator. Sir Tim Berners-Lee may have invented the World Wide Web, but Netscape Navigator is pretty much the browser that changed the world. I know that sounds like a really bold statement, but it is the truth. This browser almost launched the “new economy” by itself.

The highly successful IPO of Netscape Communications led to a huge influx of capital and creation of tens of millions of jobs in a virtual gold rush with companies trying to out-innovate each other for the next big thing. 16 years later and trillions of dollars of economic activity later it is almost just a footnote in the history books now but Netscape Communications deserves full credit for launching the New Media revolution.

Without getting into a whole history lesson, Mosaic Communications (which went on to become Netscape Communications, then gobbled up by AOL in 1998) had the first successful commercial web browser, Netscape Navigator, which was based off of NCSA Mosaic, a project developed by students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champain, among them Marc Andreesen who co-founded Netscape with SGI co-founder Jim Clark.

Finding the program for this browser was a real treat for me. As someone who got my start in technology at the dawn of the dotcom era, it really brought me back to the exciting beginnings of the web. It brought me back to the days of hacking HTML trying to make shit work, the days of worrying about the size of gif files and making sure they do not take more than a few minutes to download on our 14.4 baud modems. The days of having to actually submit your site to Yahoo in hopes they would include it in their directory.

Looking back I feel privileged to have been a part of this – working in the industry when it was just taking it’s first baby steps. Sometimes looking back I still can’t believe how far things have come and how fast. Now we do full-blown video, animation, games etc over the web on cell phones and other portable devices at speeds that are mind boggling.

So back to the browser – I went to run it (this version did not have an installer – it was a self-contained single executable) but it did not want to run on Windows 7 64-bit. Tried setting compatibility modes etc and still could not get it to run.

Copied it to a Vista 32-bit machine and that did the trick.

Header Failure
HTTP header errors when visitiong Yahoo

So I run the program and first thing you see is that the interface has a lot of the same basic features as they do now. You have the toolbar with forward and back buttons, home, stop etc. At the bottom you have the progress bar which would also show you the URL of a link you mouse over. About the only thing this version did not have in the interface that is standard now is the URL bar where you can type in a URL to visit. To visit a URL you had to go to the file menu and select open location.

First site I tried since it was one of the oldest was Yahoo.com but it did not work. I got the error above which looks like it is simply a case of an old browser not supporting the needed HTTP header.

I found that trying most sites it simply did not work. If I did not get that error I got other errors about supported character sets (this browser did not support UTF-8 or other unicode formats) or the browser simply did not have a handler for a given file type.

So failing that, I went on to play with the navigation buttons Net Search and Net Directory.

These options also brought up some neat old-school web stuff.

Netscape Search Engine Options
Netscape's selection of search engines.

First button I tried was Net Search which brought up a page with links and descriptions of the few web sites one could use to search the web at the time.

This is really amazing because not only is this pre-Google, but it is pre-Yahoo as well. At this point in history Yahoo was a hierarchical directory of sites and Google was still a couple years away.

At this point in time there were really just a handful of options for searching the web – among them AltaVista, Lycos, and WebCrawler.

All three of these domain names still seem to work but none of them are their original owners anymore and for the most part have changed drastically where one could say they are simply just the the same names and that is about it.

In this screenshot one thing that I noticed was this list pre-dated Lycos even being a commercial entity. The URL on the bottom when I moused over the link shows it’s original URL from when it was a still a research project at Carnegie Mellon University.

Netscape Navigator Web Directories
Web directories in Netscape Navigator.

Next on my little journey down memory lane was the Net Directory button. Interesting how we used to delineate between the two methods of finding sites – “search” and “directory.” I think these days due to the sheer volume of content on the web and the pace of change, hierarchical directories of sites are all but gone other than perhaps DMOZ.

Like the Net Search button, Net Directory brought up a page with some links to directories of sites, most notable among them being Yahoo.

This page REALLY shows how young (and small) the web was compared to now. When I moused over the link for Yahoo it shows their original URL before co-founders David Filo and Jerry Yang incorporated Yahoo as a business – akebono.stanford.edu/yahoo – where you could browse through the directory of 13,000 pages.

Contrast those 13,000 pages to now – even a simple Google search with the keyword “USA” returns 741,000,000 pages. The exponential increase in availability of information online is almost hard to grasp.

–Jon

StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty

StarCraft 2 Installation Screen
After almost 12 years waiting this was a welcome screen.

I have been playing the beta for StarCraft 2 for a bit now but have not had a chance to write about it until now. After waiting nearly 12 years for this game to come out I’d hope you could forgive me for being too busy playing it to write about it.

StarCraft 2 Battle.net Login Screen
This is the refined login screen to play StarCraft 2 on Battle.net

While I mentioned in a post about Command & Conquer 3 a couple years back that I felt many of the real-time strategy games had kind of evolved to re-skins of previous versions, at first glance that is what one may think when they first fire up SC2. Many of our old favorite units are in fact in SC2 and re-skinned such as the Protoss carriers, Terran siege tanks, Zerg ultralisks etc.

But there is much more to this game than a simple re-skinning, even though I will admit I am in absolute awe of the graphical beauty of this game especially with all the video options at ultra, I am going to focus more on the newer stuff.

The first major change you will see right from the beginning you can see Blizzard built this game around the online experience tying into the company’s flagship online gaming platform, Battle.net, which they originally introduced way back in 1997 for the original Diablo. Battle.net has since evolved to be the platform for all of Blizzard’s titles including World of Warcraft and now SC2.

Battle.net in it’s current incarnation serves as an authentication and matchmaking platform as well as competitive arena, but I expect to see many more changes unveiled over the coming months.

The matchmaking as it currently stands I am guessing is not as good as it will eventually be as the system gets more data to work with since most nights there are typically only 3,500 players or so on in the beta. So far I have found it quite poor at finding suitable matches for me based on skill. I have had 2v2 matches where my team was shown to be favored and we get blown out and other matches where the other side was favored and we decimated them.

Battle.net Friend Interface
Add a friend on Battle.net - you can add them by their SC2 name.identifier or their Real ID (which is often an email address)

Blizzard’s intent behind the new Battle.net seems to be leading toward making it into a full-blown social networking platform for players of their games.

For one, when Battle.net 2 as it is being called finally goes live, players of all Blizzard games will be able to chat across games. You could be in a skirmish match in StarCraft 2 and whisper a friend who is raiding Icecrown Citadel in WoW.

They have also mentioned that you will be able to unlock achievements, badges, emblems etc for your profile (similar to XBox Live) so the truly exceptional competitors will be able to display their accomplishments.

I wonder if they will eventually do something with StarCraft 2 profiles as they have done on the World of Warcraft armory where you can look up a particular player on the armory web site to see their achievements etc, and even subscribe to an RSS feed if you are one of those obsessive stalking types.

Profile Screen
Profile Screen showing ranking, achievements, recent match history, etc.

In the first StarCraft forming up a custom game with a group of friends required you to create the game and set a password and have everyone join up and then you can start it up. StarCraft 2 is not so different but a changed a little bit. Someone can invite multiple people to a “party” that can join games as a group and play as allies, teams, free-for-all etc.

Once invited by a host to a game you end up in the game lobby screen where players pick their races, the map, and the handicap and you are set. If someone in the game does not have the map, it downloads it to them and on the loading screen for the game it will show which team/player is favored and who is downloading the map if anyone is.

Game Lobby
The game lobby screen - select race, unit color, handicap, and map.

Right now my only complaint and it is a minor one is that the Battle.net interface still does not seem very friendly. Some of the options due to it being beta are ghosted as unavailable, but then some of the options that are currently accessible are not quite straightforward. Many sections of the user interface do not have text labels, but are rather generic looking icons that one has to mouseover to determine what they do. I imagine over time and familiarity it will become second nature but I found the user interface to be the one thing that really needs improvement.

Gameplay while similar to the old StarCraft seems to be less around the rush and more about resource management. Yeah if someone is slow and does not build any offensive units early on you may get them with a rush, though on some maps this is not too easy as the only land access to a base may be blocked by debris that actually has to be destroyed (and has a decent amount of hit points to boot.) While I have found that it is much harder to be rushed than previously, defensive structures such as cannons, turrets etc seem to be less effective than in the past.

I remember a common Protoss strategy I had in the original game was to use cannons to lock in someone. I’d create some pylons and cannons near a resource field close to their base to keep them from being able to build there too easily. I have tried that strategy in SC2 but so far found it ineffective as even a handful of decent ground units can rip them up.

Protoss Forces
My protoss forces mounting for an assault. Someone is going to get OWNED by this lol

Some folks will likely beg to differ, but I honestly do not see any racial balance issues. Blizzard has done as usual a fine job keeping the playing field level. Any unit that can be perceived to be overpowered usually has some counter. And some of the units from the original StarCraft that were quite potent have been nerfed since then such as the Protoss carriers which now hold only four drones as opposed to eight (post-upgrade at Fleet Beacon) which was kind of a bummer. Anyone who has played Protoss will tell you how much fun it was to send in a dozen fully upgraded carriers in to decimate an enemy base.

One thing I wish I could write about is the single player campaigns, but unfortunately they are not in the beta at this time. Part of me hopes they do not put them in beta so that they will be a surprise. I am sure they will be quite enjoyable.

In the mean time I am quite enjoying the multiplayer skirmishes on Battle.net. Should you get beta feel free to add me, Griggsy.sctwo.

Cheers,
–Jon

iPad: Great New Device or Harbinger of Digital Confinement? (UPDATED)

Apple's iPad A few weeks ago Apple formally announced the long-rumored iPad and my first impression was that I HAVE to have one. I think the device is really a cool, neat toy that would be nice to use around the house.

Like any other Apple device it has generated a lot of buzz. Some early reviews have been quite positive and others were more measured.

The more I thought about it as a device though, the more I began to think of it as going down a path I am not sure I want to go down.

One of the things many of us take for granted with our computers is the ability to install what software we want when we want. You buy a Windows machine, a Mac, or a Linux box and you can go on the Internet, download freeware/shareware, or buy commercial apps, install them, etc.

Contrast that to a device such as an iPhone (and many other phones for that matter) that require applications to be digitally signed before they can install and run on the device.

In our phones this has been par for the course under the guise of it being in our best interests so that when we need to count on the phone it works (though it is likely in the interest of carriers to keep certain apps from interfering with their lucrative business.)

But for our actual computers this has never been the model. We have always had the “freedom to tinker” with our PC’s.

While some folks are quick to point out that the iPad is basically a larger and enhanced iPhone, the cynical side of me thinks this is a gateway device to Apple (or other large companies) being able to change the locks on our digital front doors.

What if the next generation of Macs and Mac OS X used an app store model and required signed apps? What if Microsoft Windows adopts a similar model in order to “keep us safe” from all the malware?

Of course this is all what if’s at this point, but there has been a trend with corporations like Apple, Microsoft etc acting more and more like gatekeepers of content and information. Look at what happened with Amazon’s Kindle. It had it’s own beacon of irony when they remotely removed Orwell’s “1984” off of users’ Kindle readers.

Even Apple’s app store is not without it’s own controversy. Many developers have cited Apple for their glaring inconsistencies in the approval process and in some cases exercising some behavior that seems to be anti-competitive such as removing applications from the app store for mentioning competitor’s services or in some cases denying approval to an app such as Google Voice.

Sure one could say this is all tin-foil hat territory and that I am reading too much into it but am I really?

Guess only time will tell. Either way I have to admit I do like what I see in the device from a technology and user experience standpoint. My only hope is that Apple is more open with the platform and more forthcoming with the application approval process than they have been with the iPhone.

UPDATE – Somehow I missed this when digging around but it seems the Free Software Foundation has some similar concerns.

–Jon

Gigantor

The various components used to build Gigantor If you have ever had a computer die on you, you know it REALLY sucks. Sometimes it is something minor that you can fix, other times even the most seasoned computer folks among us scratch our heads and wonder wtf happened.

Unfortunately, I got to experience first hand a significant hardware failure on my Windows XP machine, Megatron (yes, all of my computers on our home LAN are named after fictional characters from TV, movies, mythology, etc.) I have had machines fail before and usually I have been able to salvage them, but this one was different as it seems it completely “fried” itself – the connector from the power supply to the motherboard had actually melted, and the connector from power supply to the nVidia GeForce 7900 was melted as well. Turning on the machine, the fans would spin up, but the board would not do any of the POST beeps, and the hard drive would spin up, but the operating system would not boot, and my monitor showed it was getting no signal.

Not wanting to be bothered I figured I would just forget about it. But after a few short weeks I kept finding times where I needed to have a Windows machine. One night a bunch of the guys were playing Counter Strike: Source but running it on OS X is kind of pain so I did not bother. Another night I needed to test out this database GUI app but it only ran on Windows.

Yes, I am still a proud Mac user, but as a software/web developer and gaming geek I would be remiss not to have multiple platforms available to me. Any given day working in the information technology field I may spend time in Windows, Mac OS X, Linux or Solaris.

It goes without saying that my Windows XP box was a part of my workflow and entertainment more than I had realized so I decided to rebuild it.

Megatron was a good, reliable machine for a few years. It had a nice Asus motherboard with an Intel Core2 Duo CPU, good hard drives, 4GB RAM, etc. Most of the components were premium.

Sadly though, the cost for replacing a lot of the Intel components is not cheap and I was reluctant to buy previous generation items or end of life items that may not be supported in the coming years.

So I opted to build a new rig – Gigantor – built based on the AMD platform this time. AMD has really come a long way over the years. Their performance is comparable to Intel’s offerings, but at a much better price point. I wanted a high-performance machine but on a budget and the economics of the AMD platform worked out well.

Once I decided on the platform, the rest was easy to fill in based on research and word of mouth.

Here is the rundown of the components (pictured at top of post):

MSI 790FX-GD70 motherboard (solid socket AM3 board, DDR3 RAM support, loads of goodies)

AMD Phenom 2 955 black edition (AMD’s current top-of-the-line quad core CPU)

Corsair 750 watt power supply (great reviews – my only complaint is that the cables are a pain in the ass)

OCZ Platinum AMD Edition 4GB DDR3 1600 RAM (really nice, fast RAM – currently running at a conservative 1333 6-6-6-24 timing)

HIS Radeon 4890 1GB graphic card (all I can say is this thing is a BEAST)

Creative X-Fi Titanium PCI-E sound card (for some reason most onboard sound cards still suck after all these years)

Pair of Western Digital Caviar 1TB drives (RAID 1 mirror at the moment – eventually moving boot drive to SSD)

Lian Li black aluminum case (great cases but the documentation is BRUTAL – all written in Engrish lol)

Thermalright TRUE heat sink (due to ordering issues I subbed in a Zalman until the TRUE arrived)

All of these components probably retail for $1,500 or so but with rebates, sales, coupons, and some leftover credit on PayPal I think it was all under $900 bucks, which of course I will write off on my taxes next year.

One thing I did not order (completely forgot) was an OEM Windows license. My previous XP license had been activated many times, and I did not want to mess around with XP on bleeding edge hardware, and I hate Vista so I went an alternate route and installed the Windows 7 Release Candidate (I will write up more on this experience later) and it has worked well.

So here is the machine is all built:

Inside Gigantor

The inside of the case has good airflow, and the fans are pretty quiet. At idle my CPU cores are measuring at 28 degrees celcius and under 100% load about 55 degrees celcius which is not bad for air cooling.

Only a couple of annoyances in this process – one was all the extra cables from the Corsair power supply that as you can see in the picture above I stashed in the unused optical drive bays, and the other would be the tiny connectors from the motherboard to the case. They never label them well, and sometimes the pins are not an even match, ie connector might have four pins, but cable only needs three.

Other than that, it has been a smooth experience.

–Jon