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Zombies on the iPhone

I'll admit, I'm addicted to Zombie games. They're not all of the same calibre, however. iOS screenshot of zombie apps

As you can see, I do actually have a few zombie games. One of the more traditional arcade style games is Zombieville USA 2. With an analog control pad area for navigation, and three equipped weapons, this game is a fast shooter, where the objective is to survive to the helicopter evacuation zone, by fighting your way through a horde of the walking dead. Action is fast paced, and the graphics are cartoonish and fun. With all the upgrades, the shotgun transforms your character into a zombie slaying machine. It has a lot of replay value.

Zombieville 2 screenshot

Z-Day Survival is a choose your own adventure style post apocalyptic survival simulator. While its entertaining, there is a limited decision tree, which greatly limits replay value.

Z-Day survival screenshot

Zombie Highway is a rather mindless test of endurance. How far can you drive your car down the highway without being overturned? It integrates with Game Center, so you can see the distance your friends have made it.

Zombie Highway screenshot

Zombie Farm is what I assume FarmVille must be like, but with zombies. You harvest zombies, potentially mutating them with plants, and then send an undead army against a series of computer opponents. I honestly don't know why I haven't removed this from my device.

Zombie Farm

Zombie Lane, however, is far more entertaining. This game was originally a FaceBook game, and was also available in Google+. It has been ported from Flash to run on iOS. I believe it's also available for Android as well. It's a well balanced game, action points recover reasonably fast. There are always a stream of tasks and quests to accomplish. The multiplayer connection can integrate with Facebook, but doesn't really show you who has the game. It also uses friend codes. My Friend code is: 172650524. I would caution anyone planning on playing this on an original iPad that the game appears to hit the system memory limits frequently, causing it to crash. It runs fine on my iPhone 4S.

Zombie Lane screenshot

Zombie Gunship claims to be about zombies. You're high up in a helicopter gunship looking through a heads up display at tiny targets on the ground. The task is to take out the zeds, which are dark, while allowing the white "civilians" to escape to safety. While I believe that the developers were intending the colors to represent heat signatures, it leads to a racial aspect in the game that makes me uncomfortable.

20120414-070005.jpg

Infected is a zombie tower defense game. Your mission is to protect some civilians by buying and placing different types of units nearby, hopefully to take out the waves of incoming zombies. Different zombies have different weaknesses, and it's a job of min maxing in order to survive. It tends to get a little tedious after awhile.

infected screenshot

The final two games are both running games, which interact with your GPS location. Zombies, Run! was a successful kickstarter campaign, and is a well executed app. While running, it adds prerecorded mission commentary in spaces in your running soundtrack. As you run, you pick up items with which you can provision and upgrade your base. The visual interface is decent, but when you are using it, your focus is on running, not the app. This game makes running fun, and is probably the most relevant training for the zombie apocalypse. It builds a compelling narrative, and the voice acting is fairly decent.

Zombies, Run!

The last game, Zombie Run, is clearly an attempt at beating Zombies, Run! to market. The concept is crudely executed, overlaying a few sprites over google map imagery. This really feels like it was slapped together on order to get the product out the door. Aside from the idea that zombies provide motivation for running, Zombie Run provides very little of note. I'm not going to provide a screenshot. Just avoid this one folks.

Of the games reviewed here, three get a wholehearted recommendation. Zombieville USA 2, Zombie Lane, and Zombies, Run!

Brand identity: What's in a name?

What's in a name? that which we call a roseBy any other name would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd, Retain that dear perfection which he owes Without that title

Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2

The issue of naming is not as arbitrary as Shakespeare would have us believe. A name brings nuanced meaning, bringing with it the cultural associations the name carries. Sometimes, there can be positive and negative meanings associated with a name.

Consider Apple. In the computer and business world, it is associated with design andengineering, and a close attention to detail. In the music world, Apple is associated with the Beatles. Going back a bit further in history, apples have played an important role in society, perhaps most notably with Isaac Newton and his discovery of the laws of gravity.

 

Apples also have a dark side in history, such as the cyanide laced apple with which Alan Turing took his life. Other occurrences in mythology, such as Snow White's apple, confirm this dual nature.

How then do we determine the meaning associated with a symbol? Are all apples symbolic of science or poison? Hardly. With every symbol, the way in which it is used reinforces a preferred meaning. With Apple, Inc., the slogan Think Different emphasized Newton's scientific genesis. Through time, this has been amplified through increased innovation. Alan Turing Memorial

Not every brand has the history of the apple, however. Many more are built upon the names of their founders. Ford, Dell, and Toyota are all family names. Even Walmart derives it's name from founder Sam Walton. In each case, these brands developed their own identity, without relying as heavily on prior associations.

How should you brand yourself? While in the past, this blog was hosted at maplemuse.wordpress.com, I have decided that a change was in order. Why was I working on a different brand when I could be building my own identity? This blog is now hosted at the fresh and minty nickmatthews.ca. After all, that's who I am.

 

Movie Reviews for Remembrance Day

Whether you call it Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, Veterans Day, or in Poland's case, Independence Day, November 11th of each year is kept in memory of the great wars of the twentieth century, and of the many sacrifices made in the fight for freedom.

Until relatively recently, movies about the two World Wars have focused almost exclusively on the heroic exploits of a few soldiers, with relatively little attention drawn to the horrors of war. This romantic view of modern warfare has changed more recently, with movies which are not nearly as one sided in their portrayals of armed conflict.

In 1993, Schindler's List was released, addressing issues of the Holocaust. This marked the first of many award nominated war films by director Stephen Spielberg. While some have complained that this film focuses on the 600 Jews who were saved, rather than the several million Jews who were murdered during the Second World War, it is an emotionally powerful film.

Spielberg followed up in 1998 with Saving Private Ryan. This was one of the first movies to portray the horrors of war as just that: horrifying. The landing scene at Omaha Beach is chaotic and deadly, with a frenetic pace as soldiers died to take the beachhead. Of particular note in this film is the framing device, the and elderly veteran visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, to honour his fallen comrades. There is a great deal of focus on what we do with our lives, and how to live them in a way which honours the fallen soldiers in these great wars.

In 2001, the HBO series Band of Brothers followed the men of Easy Company as they fought in WWII, along with interviews with the surviving members of Easy Company. This series goes beyond any other that I have seen in depicting the war, and the terrible toll it took on the soldiers who fought in them. It's a visually stunning film, and extremely emotional. Part 9, Why We Fight, is one of the most heartbreaking of episodes, and invariably brings tears to my eyes.

While I have not yet seen it, in 2010, the HBO miniseries The Pacific focused on the efforts of the US Marines in the Pacific front in WWII. This forms a counterbalance to Band of Brothers which focused exclusively on the European front.

There are a number of documentaries about the war as well. I've recently watched Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, a BBC documentary narrated by Linda Hunt, which uses multiply sourced historical documents to portray the Nazi's genocidal program at the concentration camps. It's a powerful documentary, in clinical precision detailing how the Nazi regime carried out the mass murder of over six million Jews and undesirables.

There are also films which show Hitler's rise and fall. The film Downfall has become famous for various YouTube spoofs where Hitler learns of some new event, for which he is then angry. The real film is quite powerful, showing a Führer out of touch with the realities of the war, and of his own people.

Another highly fictionalized portrayal is Hitler: The Rise of Evil. This film covers the period from the end of the Great War to the Night of the Long Knives. This movie was uncomfortable to watch, and not just because it was showing the beginning of the Nazi regime. The filmmakers made several decisions which seemed to make a caricature of Hitler, well beyond what would have been necessary. Choices in the film are entirely fictionalized, even contradicting historical evidence. This was a disturbing film to watch, slough perhaps not in the way the filmmakers intended.

There are of course many other recent films which depict the wars and the Holocaust. Passchendaele, by Canadian director Paul Gross shows the futile battles fought over fields of mud in World War I. Life is Beautiful, The Pianist, The Counterfeiters, and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas all cover stories of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

Film plays a great part in remembering the past. All the more so today, when there are so few veterans of the Second World War alive today. Their personal testament to the horrors of war have gone silent, and these films, although they often contain fictional elements, are now the most vivid reminders of worldwide war.

RIM: So long, and thanks for all the fish

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish! So, this is it. My last day of employment at Research in Motion. After nearly five years at the company, I'm leaving a great team.

Handing in my resignation letter was a liberating experience. It's definitely preferable to the alternative means of termination. I feel for the two thousand employees laid off earlier this year. I've been in their position before, and it's not a fun place to be.

My time at RIM has seen some interesting transitions. When I started, the original BlackBerry Pearl was the latest device, marking the entry into the consumer market, from a pure enterprise position. Most recently, the Playbook has staked a tenuous position in the tablet market.

It's been a fun ride, but it's time to switch streams. As many resignation notices on the tech world state: So long, and thanks for all the fish. There were after all, some delicious fish along the way. As Douglas Soltys pointed out in his post yesterday, there are a number of colleagues that I leave behind. It's been a blast working with them.

Next Monday I'll start my next chapter of employment, with a quarter of the commute. I look forward to a fun challenge, one in which I'll be able to directly see the results of my work in the company. That's part of the challenge in working for a smaller company as well. There is more responsibility, but a greater stake in the rewards.

Here's to the future.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojydNb3Lrrs&feature=youtu.be]

Blogging from the iPad

Steve Jobs while introducing the iPad in San F...

A few things have changed since I last covered blogging from the iPad. Both the BlogPress and WordPress apps have received multiple updates. There is also a new app called Blogsy, which has some interesting media integrations.

The three apps share some common features:

Here are some additional features of the tools:

Blogsy

Blogsy has support for posting to WordPress, Blogger, and Posterous. While Blogsy may not support as many networks as BlogPress, they do have support for the big ones.

Blogsy has some interesting gesture support. Horizontal swipes will switch between editing and preview modes, which makes the lack of live editing slightly less annoying.

Blogsy departs from the more traditional UI shared between WordPress and BlogPress in that it does not show all the previous posts on the main screen. In order to view and edit earlier posts or drafts, you select the gear icon next to the current post, which brings up a selection dialog. This has the advantage of giving more space for the editor, as you likely don't need to switch between posts frequently.

Blogsy does offer some of the same HTML and formatting options as WordPress and BlogPress, but these are presented as a toolbar on the screen, and not on the keyboard or in a menu. While text cannot be entered while in preview mode, these styles can be applied in preview mode, which is actually quite helpful.

When connected to the network, Blogsy also has rich media integration. Blogsy can use Flickr, Picasa, YouTube, Google Image Search, or the iPad photos app to insert media into your posts. Blogsy also has a built in web browser from which you can drag links into your post.

Key summary:

  • Modern UI
  • Rich media support
  • Easy link dragging
  • WordPress support
  • Blogger support
  • Posterous support

BlogPress

Unlike Blogsy and WordPress, I can't seem to find any preview functionality in BlogPress. When I initially reviewed some of the blog apps for iOS, BlogPress seemed more stable than WordPress. There does not seem to be many additional features added to BlogPress, and the functionality is relatively basic.

Where BlogPress excels is in support for a variety of blog platforms. BlogPress can post to WordPress, Blogger, MSN Live Spaces, MovableType, TypePad, LiveJournal, Drupal, Joomla, Tumblr, SquareSpace, and My Opera.

Support for HTML tags are accessible through a drop down menu, which while accessible when using a Bluetooth keyboard, remains awkward.

Media support is limited to images or video from your device.

  • Basic UI
  • Limited media support (upload from device)
  • Extensive platform support
  • WordPress
  • Blogger
  • MSN Live Spaces (which shut down in 2011)
  • MovableType
  • TypePad
  • LiveJournal
  • Drupal
  • Joomla
  • Tumblr
  • SquareSpace
  • My Opera

WordPress

If you're using WordPress, there are several compelling reasons to use this app. As the name indicates, this app focuses exclusively on WordPress features. In addition to blog entries, this app also provides comment management and static page support. While there is also a stats page, which presumably mirrors the functionality of the stats page in the WordPress dashboard, I have been unable to get it working.

One of the things that the WordPress app does well is the post preview. If your iPad has an active data connection, it renders your post using the theme from your blog. If you are out of data coverage, it renders in a much more limited preview.

The WordPress app also provides an extra row of keys to the keyboard, which has several common HTML elements, such as list tags. This is a useful addition, but is inaccessible if you are using a Bluetooth keyboard.

Like BlogPress, media support is limited to photos and video uploaded from your device.

Key features

  • Only supports WordPress.com and self-hosted WordPress blogs
  • Limited UI
  • Limited media support (upload from device)
  • Comment moderation
  • Wordpress stats view

Summary

Each of these apps have particular strengths. For those who wish to manage their comments on a WordPress blog, the WordPress app has some useful features. However, if you use a more niche blog platform, you may have to settle for BlogPress. Overall, I like the new challenger, Blogsy. It has a cleaner, modern interface. The Blogsy developers seem to have considered the application's usability, focusing on the best way to make an ideal workflow, and not pushing for a more basic level of functionality.

Steve Jobs: In Memoriam

Steve Jobs at the WWDC 07

Steve Jobs passed away October 5, 2011. It came as no great shock, as he stepped down earlier this summer due to terminal illness. It came as no great shock, but with a great deal of somber reflection. Steve Jobs helped us Think Different.

In my youth, I never really had much exposure to Apple Computer. The first 19 years of my life were spent with PCs. I ran with DOS 3.3, then later Windows 95. By the time Windows 98 was released, I was running Linux, probably RedHat, SuSE and later Debian. Macintosh was easy to make fun of back then. After all, where was the command line? Why did their computers have a single mouse button? I had heard that the memory management was behind the times. If an application crashed, it could take down the whole system. These were the days of Classic Macintosh, right around the time of the first great transition from the Motorola 68K processors to ARM.

The phrase "Think Different" certainly applied to Macintosh, but it wasn't really clear why being different was a good thing. Then Steve Jobs returned to Apple, and everything changed.

The iMac and the first iBooks were colourful machines, bringing life and energy back to the dull beige of computing. One of my friends at the University of Waterloo had one of the Blueberry iBooks, and introduced me to the first beta releases of Mac OS X. Built upon the technologies of NeXT, it showed a new way forward in computing, which combined the power of a Unix kernel with the graphics of the Mac interface.

Under Steve Jobs' leadership, Apple launched several new innovations in computing. The Mac Cube was largely seen as a failure today, but its heritage lives on in the Mac Mini, a smaller device.

During this time, Apple drove changes in technology. The iMac G3 was the first computer to drop PS/2 ports and floppy drives in favour of CD drives, USB and FireWire ports. The MacBook Air has continued this transition by removing not only the DVD drives, but also removing the ethernet ports from its most recent models.

Apple has continued to innovate, bringing iTunes, the iPod and the iPhone to computing. With Steve Jobs at the helm, Apple continued to redefine the way we think about computing.

Steve Jobs also changed the way people think about presenting great ideas. His keynotes are famous for what is known as the Reality Distortion Field. Apple's presentation software is named Keynote because it was designed for his keynote speeches, which were carefully practiced stories around a product release.

Steve Jobs popularized a narrative form of presentation, backed up by slides containing images and short words or phrases he used to emphasize key points of his story, rather than paragraphs of text to be read aloud. Steve brought charisma to the role of CEO.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.

About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.

Maybe they have to be crazy.

How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?

We make tools for these kinds of people.

While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Steve, you changed the world. Because you were different, the world is a better place. You will not be forgotten.

Kindle Fire: What Amazon Got Right

Kindle Fire

Amazon's recent launch of the Kindle Fire, priced at $199, and the entry of the low-end Kindle at $79 is a very interesting strategy.

When Apple launched the iPad in 2010, it built upon the architecture and infrastructure of the iPhone, which launched in 2007. Even the iPhone built upon the success of the iTunes infrastructure which supported earlier iPod models. Amazon is likewise dealing from a position of strength, building upon the technology of the Kindle ereaders, and Amazon's existing delivery and hosting infrastructure.

Amazon ships much more than just Kindle books. The Amazon MP3 store has been an iTunes competitor for several years now, and was the first to offer music without Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology. Amazon now also offers instant movie downloads as rentals or purchases, as well as Android application sales. Amazon offers a comprehensive alternative to the Apple iTunes infrastructure, and the Kindle Fire is another key part of this strategy.

The next key step of the Kindle Fire's introduction is how Amazon differentiates this new tablet from the iPad. Like several other tablet manufacturers, Amazon is launching a smaller 7 inch tablet. While this form factor is not unique (the BlackBerry PlayBook, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, and the HTC Flyer all fit this size), Amazon has also cut the price point for the Kindle Fire. At $200, it is clear that Amazon is entering the low-end of the space, not directly competing against Apple at the moment.

When you consider the HP Touchpad fire sale in August, where a drastic price cut finally saw another tablet outselling the iPad, there is clearly a market for a lower-end tablet. One where Apple isn't actively targeting.

If Amazon can successfully lay claim to this part of the market, you can expect to see future attempts at Amazon launching into the higher upscale market that the iPad now claims. One thing is for certain, Apple is watching Amazon very closely.

Amazon may have a razor-thin margin on the Kindle Fire, but the important thing to note is that it will drive sales to the Amazon store, where the real money is made. Just as Apple takes a 30% cut on sales on the Apple App Store, I expect Amazon will take a healthy cut off anything sold through their online store, while at the same time depriving the Apple economy of sales.

Amazon sent a clear message to other tablet manufacturers: This time, amateur hour really is over.

Language Matters and Computational Linguistics

A cover of Computational Linguistics

I'm rather disappointed with the second edition of Language Matters, by Donna Jo Napoli and Vera Lee-Schoenfeld. The second edition was published in 2010, which has some minor updates to the earlier 2003 edition, along with some added material.

Chapter 7, "Can computers learn language?" received only minor edits, changing references in the examples. They change the term VCR to a DVR. The example they use however, has not changed, nor has their conclusion.

The two examples they use are: 1) Record "Law and Order" at 9 P.M. on Channel 10.

2) If there's a movie on tonight with Harrison Ford in it, then record it. But if it's American Graffiti, then don't bother because I already have a copy of that.

As Napoli notes (Lee-Schoenfeld was not involved in the first edition), this task would involve asking the computer "to scan a list of TV programs, recognize which ones are movies, filter out the particular movie American Graffiti, determine whether Harrison Ford is an actor in the remaining movies, and then activate the "record" function on the DVR at all the appropriate times on all of the appropriate channels." (Language Matters 2nd Ed. p 99).  Napoli continues to suggest that "we'd be asking the computer to work from ordinary sentences, extracting the operations and then properly associating them with the correct vocabulary items, a much harder task". (Language Matters, 2nd edition, p 99).

Of interest here is that Napoli's summary does not follow the lexical and linguistic parsing of the command. In particular, Napoli filters out American Graffiti before performing any searches for Harrison Ford. This appears particularly strange to me, as the first step in parsing this statement would be the same whether by a linguist or a software parser. Parse the first sentence before attempting to add context from the second.

While Napoli and Lee-Schoenfeld make several bold, definitive statements throughout the text which I found lacking in support, in this case they seem to dismiss the concept as "much harder task".  This statement may have gotten a bare pass in 2003, but in 2010, it's a harder sell. Admittedly, the Jeopardy! showdown with IBM's Watson may not have yet occurred, but in a text revision, I would expect some level of research to validate these claims. There are several journals on computational linguistics available, such as the Journal of Computational Linguistics, which has been Open Access since March of 2009.

In particular, the example given above is domain specific. It deals with television specific language, for which there are databases of particular terms, such as movie titles and casting information.

Even before Watson, I would not have considered a problem of this scope to be extraordinarily difficult, primarily due to the limited domain. While a more general domain would increase the difficulty considerably, current research is looking more hopeful. While computers are still not ready to pass the Turing test, there are some indications that this may happen in the relatively near future.

Language Matters is a very accessible text, covering many aspects of language and linguistics to those without much experience in the field. Aside from the chapter on computers and language, this book provides a good introduction to a number of topics. I wish that in the revision process, the authors had revisited some of their conclusions in an active field of research.

Murdoch Mysteries

The realm of television crime dramas is rather crowded. With the remaining Law and Order spinoffs, there are the various CSIs, the JAG spinoffs of NCIS and NCIS:LA, and any number of cop and lawyer dramas. It's difficult to find a part of the market that isn't already saturated with the competition. Murdoch Cast

Murdoch Mysteries, which airs on City TV, fits an interesting niche, breaking new territory as a Victorian era detective story set in Toronto, which strives for period authenticity, within a fictional narrative. There doesn't appear to be a lot of competition in this admittedly small niche.

Stephen Harper in cameo for Murdoch Mysteries

Still, it is a niche that has found its fans, including our current Prime Minister. Murdoch Mysteries is not the first show in which Stephen Harper has played a cameo role. Like former Prime Minister Paul Martin, Harper has previously appeared on Corner Gas. What's not to like, for our prime minister? Victorian crime fighters may have had limited tools, but punishments were severe. Capital punishment was still on the books, and a failed hanging formed the plot for one episode of the show. The current government's "tough on crime" persona seems to be a good match for Murdoch Mysteries, where the lead character is morally upstanding, almost to a fault. Murdoch's morality works to humanize the Toronto of the 1890s, bringing compassion to the otherwise unenlightened days of criminal enforcement.

What then, can we find of interest in Murdoch Mysteries? The fictive detective brings a scientific method to his investigations. Detective Murdoch investigates crimes using the precursors to the more modern techniques used in shows like CSI. The writers appear to take pleasure in their numerous anachronisms, by playing this man of science against adherents of other, more traditional forms of investigation, mainly coercion and interrogation.

Parts of the show have been filmed in Cambridge, Ontario. With modern signs covered up by period pieces, it retains the feel of Victorian Toronto.

While the show attempts historical accuracy, it very much plays to our modern conceptions of the Victorian era. Historical figures such as Nikola Tesla, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and H.G. Wells figure in the plots of several episodes, emphasizing the science and imagination that Murdoch represents.

A significant theme of Murdoch Mysteries is retrofuturism, particularly when compared to these historical figures. While the television show remains too firmly grounded in historical reality to be truly considered steampunk, there are clearly elements of several episodes which could be seen as steampunk. In particular, the season three finale, the "Tesla Effect" involved a microwave death ray machine.

Of the characters in the show, perhaps the most amusing is Constable Crabtree, whose youthful enthusiasm leads him to extrapolate towards modern technology from what he sees Murdoch use on the show. As noted on the Steampunk Scholar blog, Crabtree's role in the web series "Curse of the Lost Pharaohs" leads much closer to the realm of steampunk, incorporating other common steampunk elements.

Tron: Legacy

Unless it's a Disney animated flick like Tangled, I generally don't get to see movies in the theatre. Tron: Legacy, didn't quite make the cut, but I've finally had a chance to watch it on DVD. How does this match up with the legacy of Tron? While the original movie was revolutionary, the animation has not aged well. Tron: Legacy is a visually stunning film, paying homage to the visual style of the original film, while making many visual improvements. In particular, the youthful face of Jeff Bridges in the opening, and as CLU are very well done, especially when compared to the older, bearded Kevin Flynn we see later in the film.

Where the film fell flat in my opinion, was the underlying plot. The "Isomorphic algorithms" was not sufficiently explained, for them to be as important a plot point as they were. In particular, the actions of Kevin Flynn seem relatively obscure. The "vast potential" of these new lifeforms are mentioned several times, but never in any way which proved meaningful. The best the movie manages is to get us to understand that Kevin believes they would change the world.

Kevin also appears little like his impetuous character from the previous film. The Zen inspired themes are an interesting addition to the film, and increase the way in which young Sam acts as a foil to his meditative father. The example of the game Go fits this theme quite well, in which caution and planning form the foundation of many good strategies, much more than the game of Chess.

While I found Tron: Legacy to be an enjoyable film, it doesn't have the same cultural resonance that the earlier movie did. The original Tron dealt with an era where mainframe computers were new and poorly understood. The idea that people might be pulled into some alternate universe inside the computer was outlandish, but so was the idea of actually using a computer. Today, computer use is ubiquitous, and thus better understood. The changing technologies, from mainframe technology through the personal computer age, until the current cloud computing networks is not adequately represented in the film. Part of that can be explained by the fact that the virtual world of Tron: Legacy was built in the 1980s, building upon the fictional technology of the original film.

I've heard there's a sequel in the works, which should be able to capitalize on the technological advances made during the research and development for Legacy.

My Little Pony: Why Friendship Really Is Magic

With a three-year-old, I've had some exposure to what passes for children's programming these days. Many shows from my childhood in the 80s were barely veiled marketing attempts to introduce kids to the latest character, carefully cross-marketed as a toy available at the nearby department store. It comes as a great surprise to discover that among the latest 80s reboots, "the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" series is a high quality show.

My Little Pony is obviously closely tied to the Hasbro line of toys. When compared to the original television series, the differences are startling. The original show consisted of barely discernable, mostly interchangeable ponies, in relatively lackluster episodes. In the new series, not only are the different ponies visually distinctive, but they have vastly different personalities.

The Cast

Twilight Sparkle is a bookish "egghead" unicorn, an is insecure about her position with her newfound friends.

Pinkie Pie is the completely random party pony. As often as not seen with a party hat, or fake glasses disguise, ready to pull a prank on someone. She's a jokester.

Rainbow Dash is a pegasus, and is overconfident, brash, boastful, and insecure about being judged.

Applejack is almost as stubborn as a mule. She is a proud pony, and is no stranger to hard work. She often is in competition with Rainbow Dash.

Fluttershy is another pegasus, like Rainbow Dash, but is completely different in temperament. She is soft spoken, and is afraid of scary things, like falling leaves,.

Rarity is the fashion conscious diva, and is always thinking about her accessories. I'm sure that the Hasbro marketing folks are dreaming of different ways to sell accessory sets for Rarity.

It's a pretty diverse group, mostly defined by their character flaws. This is the genius of the show. Each episode explores the conflicts which arise from the different ponies. The show presents their various strengths, and shows how they work together to overcome their problems.  That's the key. In a show targeted towards young girls, the show really does focus on interpersonal relationships, with friendship and cooperation key themes.

While the episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic may not be scientifically plausible, it doesn't do so in a way which grates on the nerves.  [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muVfidujxRg] To understand what I mean by this, try watching several episodes of Little Einsteins. The kids are flying in a freaking rocket ship. That can fly. So why are they always trying to go through various obstacles? You know, the ones they can fly over?

In fact, the episodes of Friendship is Magic are generally clever, and pay homage to television tropes, such as the classic chase scene, as seen in the episode "Bird in the Hoof". [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqwoYjeJcnU]

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a good show for girls, and won't necessarily drive parents crazy. Well, except perhaps due to the constant replaying of the episodes. Even with repeated viewings however, Pinkie Pie is still very random. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHNnDbYEJak]

Physical Computing

Back in the 1990s, cyberpunk literature envisioned a virtual world, where people could leave their physical bodies and merge in a posthuman reality. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and William Gibson's Neuromancer led the wave of the future: a plane of virtual existence where someone's avatar acts as ambassador into a new realm with different rules for interaction.

According to James Patrick Kelley and John Kessel in the introduction to Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, cyberpunk was defined by several obsessions, most notably "the way emerging technologies will change what it means to be human" and more to the point, "that we are no longer changing technology; rather it has begun to change us".

What then, is physical computing, and how does it relate to the literature of cyberpunk? Where cyberpunk embraced the virtual to the fullest extent possible, even going so far as to reject the physical body, seeking to replace the physical with the virutal, physical computing seeks to extend the physical presence through computer operation. Physical computing tends to bring about behavioural changes. From what I've seen and read, there is no attempt to "merge" with the computer, but instead to allow it to extend human capabilities.

As the name would suggest, physical computing is very much interested in interactions with the real world. Many physical computing projects are based around small microprocessors, like the Arduino. More important than the controller, however, is the way in which these projects interact with the environment. Numerous sensors measure the environment, which then provides meaningful feedback.

Some of the more interesting examples of physical computing change the way we interact with technology. Take the GPS locked treasure box, which will only unlock at particular coordinates, telling the user how far away the correct location is.

Another interesting example of physical computing is a gumball machine that only dispenses candy when a particular code is knocked on the case. A shave and a haircut isn't only good at getting cartoon rabbits out of hiding.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kRTpmswgFk]

Physical computing is interesting precisely because microcontrollers can be used to influence behaviour. This promotion of interactivity is likely one of the reasons why physical computing has been embraced by artists and tinkerers. One of the more innovative ideas includes e-textiles, like the LilyPad Arduino, where electronics are embedded in clothing.

While the cyberpunk literature of the past presented a world where the virtual was embraced, where skill and craft was expressed through digital code, divorced from the physical world by engineers and hackers, physical computing fully engages the physical. Microcontrollers now provide the heart of interactive art projects, and form the focus of new engaging projects by educators.

Aurora Award Finalists

The finalists for the Prix Aurora Awards has now been announced. While I've only read two of the nominated works for Best English Novel so far, (Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay, and Watch, by Robert J. Sawyer), I've read the previous two novels in the series by Hayden Trenholm (nominated for Stealing Home, previous novels reviewed are Defining Diana and Steel Whispers.), and have attended readings by Sawyer, Trenholm and Marie Bilodeau for their nominated works.

I'm also pleased that Suzanne Church (a writer here in the Waterloo Region),  Matt Moore, and Hayden Trenholm are finalists for Best English Short Story. Sawyer is also a finalist for Best English Poem, as are Carolyn Clink, and Helen Marshall.

Douglas Smith (of whom I've mentioned the story Radio Nowhere from the Campus Chills anthology) has a nomination for Best English Related work for his collection of stories (Chimerascope), and John Robert Columbo and Brett Alexander Savory are finalists for the Tesseracts Fourteen anthology.

There's a good article in the Metro News about an Ottawa based group of writers named the East Block Irregulars which includes Trenholm, Moore and Bilodeau which shows how a great group can challenge writers to excel. All of the members of the group have reason to be proud of these accomplishments.

Matt Moore holding Steel Whispers

A photo of SF writer Matt Moore holding his colleague Hayden Trenholm's novel Steel Whispers. Both Moore and Trenholm are nominated for Best English Short Story.

Shifting Bits With Arduino

I've recently started back into electronics. I took an electronics course back in high school, but I've dealt mostly with software since then.I've had a Freeduino-SB sitting around since last year, until I finally soldered on the through hole components a few weeks ago. The Freeduino is an Arduino clone made by Solarbotics.

So far, I've managed to power a dual digit 7 segment display using two 74HC595 shift registers. These can be chained in series to provide more outputs from the same three output pins from the Arduino.

Arduino Countdown Here's a video of the code in action. The initial state of the 7 segment display is randomly determined, as one of the pins on the shift registers is connected directly to power, instead of an additional output pin. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebpIjjiMMNg]

Here's the rather basic code I'm currently using:

//Pin connected to latch pin (ST_CP) of 74HC595
const int latchPin = 8;
//Pin connected to clock pin (SH_CP) of 74HC595
const int clockPin = 12;
//Pin connected to Data in (DS) of 74HC595
const int dataPin = 11;

long count = 0;

void setup() {
  pinMode(latchPin, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(dataPin, OUTPUT);  
  pinMode(clockPin, OUTPUT);
  //Reset display
  byte bits = 0;
  writeDigit(bits, bits);
}

byte getByteForDigit(int digit){
  byte bit = 0;
  switch(digit){
      case 1:
        bit = B110;
        break;
      case 2:
        bit = B1011011;
        break;
      case 3:
        bit = B1001111;
        break;
      case 4:
        bit = B1100110;
        break;
      case 5:
        bit = B1101101;
        break;
      case 6:
        bit = B1111101;
        break;
      case 7:
        bit = B111;
        break;
      case 8:
        bit = B1111111;
        break;
      case 9:
        bit = B1100111;
        break;
      case 0:
        bit = B111111;
        break;
      default:      
        break;  
    }
    return bit;
}

void loop() {
    byte bits = 0;
    byte bits2 = 0;
    bits = getByteForDigit((100-count) % 10);
    bits2 = getByteForDigit((100-count) / 10);
    writeDigit(bits, bits2);
    count = (count + 1) % 100;
    delay(250);
}

void writeDigit(byte bits, byte bits2){

  digitalWrite(latchPin, LOW);
  shiftOut(dataPin, clockPin, MSBFIRST, bits);
  shiftOut(dataPin, clockPin, MSBFIRST, bits2);
  digitalWrite(latchPin, HIGH);
}

Writing Resumed

I haven't been posting for the last few weeks. Originally, I was taking a break so I could focus on writing essays due on consecutive days. That excuse only covers a brief interval of time. Like writing of any kind, its easy to say that you'll take "just another day off". A week can easily snowball into two weeks. This post is my attempt to get back into the swing of things, and start writing again. Not much of a post today, but I should have more up later this week.

Lazy Sunday, Lazy Monday, Lazy Muncie

As I'm busy writing an essay this evening, I'll leave you with some videos from the past. Here's the SNL skit Lazy Sunday. It's loaded from the NBC site, so it takes awhile to load. [vodpod id=Video.5864398&w=425&h=350&fv=]

Here's the response video Lazy Monday.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSgV4vGamzs]

Here's the response video Lazy Muncie.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCafRSfPfww]

The interesting thing about these videos is how they speak to local cultural values, while still referring to those in the preceding videos. They're an early example of YouTube's response feature, and show how fan participation can work in a convergence culture.

Interesting note: These response videos in particular are made by people working in the film industry. Lazy Monday includes Sam FriedlanderMark Feuerstein, and Adam Stein, while Lazy Muncie includes Chris Cox and Kirby Heyborne.

Lazy Muncie in particular plays up the concept that these are just "regular guys" making these videos, but Chris Cox actually lived in LA for the previous 12 years, and made the trip back to Indiana for the weekend shoot.

Contempt of Parliament

I've got two major essays that I'm trying to write, so I'll try and keep this somewhat brief. Today, the Canadian Government (or should that be the Harper Government?) fell, after a non-confidence vote in the House of Commons about the recent committee findings of a contempt of Parliament issue. I am cautiously optimistic. I'm actually quite surprised that the 40th Parliament lasted the 2.5 years that it has. Traditionally, minority governments in Canada have been extremely short lived.

Whether things will turn out any different than what we have right now, or if Canada falls deeper into Harperland will be seen over the next several weeks. Sadly, I expect the political vitriol to fly, and have serious doubts about cooler heads prevailing.

Some of the issues I would like to see brought to the forefront of the election campaigns include some of the following:

  • Public accountability. Sadly, Harper ran on this in the 2004 election, but his government has been more secretive and restrictive than other recent governments.
  • Reform for health transfer taxes. Our healthcare system is hurting, and the provincial governments are unable to bear the costs on their own.
  • A strong focus on debating actual issues, rather than a descent into the madness of attack ads.

Unfortunately, I believe the Conservatives will continue their tactics of demonizing the opposition parties. The Liberals and NDP will likely follow suit. It's been proven that attack ads are effective.

It would have been nice to have seen the opposition parties vote in solemn silence to topple the government, rather than express their glee at finally forcing an election. This was a historic vote, and I think it would have sent a strong message to Canadians if they could keep their emotions in check. Their behaviour during the vote just fuels the claims that they're opportunistically seeking power.

In the meantime, we wait for Stephen Harper to meet with Governor General David Johnston tomorrow morning, in order to receive our election date. At least Harper didn't ask to prorogue Parliament again.

GG David Johnston

I recently reviewed the book Harperland, which others might find informative in understanding some of the changes made in Canadian politics in the past several years.  Also, leading up to the toppling of the Government was the Bev Oda/Kairos affair, which in my opinion, shows the lack of respect the Conservatives have for Parliament, and for Canadians.

Bad Commercials: I Keep Hearing It Twice

I've been irritated by commercials before in the past, but over the past year, I've become better at analyzing why certain commercials annoy me. The most recent commercial to raise my ire is one for Rogers TV. Since the primary radio station I listen to is 570 News, which is owned by Rogers, this gets played far too often. Here is a transcribed version of the commercial, between "Roger" and "Bill". An audio version could at one time be found here.

Welcome to Rogers Tech Talk, I'm Roger and I was just telling Bill that Rogers has the most HD programming.

The most HD programming?

Plus you get a free Rogers HD box.

A free Rogers HD Box?

When you trade in your satellite receiver.

When you trade in your satellite receiver?

Yup.

Are you sure about this?

I keep hearing it twice, so I'm convinced.

I keep hearing it twice, so I'm convinced too!

Well then, switch today and trade your satellite receiver for a free Rogers HD box. Visit a Rogers Plus store or an authorized dealer. Conditions apply.

While it is true that repetition is one of the most common elements of effective advertising, it is best used with care. In this commercial, there are 166 total words, of which roughly 40 words are repeated phrases. The commercial draws undue attention to this repetition, using the repeated phrases as a reason why the audience should buy into the message.

In The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation, Chaïm Perelman argues that "the simplest figures for increasing the feeling of presence are those depending on repetition" (174, emphasis his). By presence, Perelman refers to the parts of an argument on which the audience is intended to focus, by bringing that element to the forefront of the speech.

In essence, the key elements of the commercial are as follows:

A) Rogers has the most HD programming.

B) You get a free HD box when you trade in your satellite receiver.

C) Visit a Rogers Plus store or an authorized dealer to sign up.

D) Conditions apply.

Using the terminology of Stephen Toulmin, elements A and B are unbacked warrants, leading to the claim of C, but with a rebuttal of D. The commercial is trying to suggest that elements A and B are sufficient to induce the audience to accept C.

This commercial utterly fails to provide any supporting evidence for these warrants. Instead, the commercial suggests to the audience that sheer repetition of these warrants should be sufficient.

As Perelman notes, "the weaker the arguments seem to be, the greater the doubt raised by the mere fact of arguing in favor of a thesis, for the thesis will appear to depend on these arguments" (480). One of the key elements of this commercial which irritates me is the suggestion that since these statements have been repeated, that I should be convinced that this is a great deal.

This use of repetition only serves to highlight the weakness of their argument for me, and suggests a strong sense of disregard for the intelligence of the listening audience. If this commercial is intended to persuade people, I'm insulted.

If the purpose of the commercial is instead to remind the audience that if they trade in their satellite receiver, that they can get a free HD box, it's slightly less offensive. I'm aware that commercials can work at different levels, and not all of them are intended to work as a direct sale. As Lavidge and Steiner note, "the ultimate function is to help produce sales. But all advertising is not, should not, and cannot be designed to produce immediate purchases on the part of all who are exposed to it". They further provide a series of seven steps in advertising which lead towards an eventual sale.

In a sense, I can see how this commercial could provide support to Lavidge and Steiner's theory, the rhetorical effects used seem insulting to myself. They're really quite weak in the three elements of Aristotle's rhetorical modes of persuasion: ethos, logos, and pathos.

In my view, the argument starts with a lack of ethos: As a commercial advertisement, there is a vested interest in the outcome. While there is an attempt to speak from a position of authority ("Roger" from "Rogers Tech Talk"), it really lacks authenticity. The logos, or logic of the argument is admittedly weak. Finally, there is no real sense of an emotional appeal. If anything, I feel negative emotions based on my reception of the arguments.

Adding to the problem, at least for myself, is that this commercial is played on a heavy rotation. It's not uncommon for it to be played in consecutive commercial breaks, intensifying my sense of outrage.

Is this an effective advertisement? I have now spent time and effort responding to it, although in a negative way. Does this reinforce the intended message?

Daylight Savings Time

The DST Time change has effectively sapped me of all energy this week. I have lots of things to blog about, but they're likely not going to happen this week. It's 11:20PM, and I still have another 30 pages of reading yet tonight. Fun times. Seriously, who thought it was a good idea to skip ahead an hour? I'm in the middle of a building all day long anyways. For all it matters to me, it could start getting light at noon for all I can tell. Despite my lack of sleep, my daughter's new room is almost fully painted, and looks really nice. Photos will be forthcoming, to blind you with pink and purple. I'll freely admit that I haven't done much of the painting, mostly the stuff higher up against the ceiling, but the end result is looking spectacular.

Breakfast

Tonight I saw the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's for the first time. The images of Audrey Hepburn in this film have been icons in Hollywood ever since, and I think that I can understand some of this. The movie speaks to the American Dream, where one can aspire to reach the upper social circles despite one's humble origins. More importantly, it is a clear representation of the romantic ideal, at least from Hollywood's perspective. The male lead is a newly published novelist, and pursues a relationship with an eccentric socialite, who appears to be seeking money.

The ending is predictable, they end up together, as Hepburn's character learns to accept her vulnerability. The basic plot of the movie may have cliched elements, but the movie is beautifully executed, save one major exception.

The portrayal of Mickey Rooney's caricature of the asian neighbour upstairs is overdone, well past the point of racism. While it may not have been the recognized intent of the producers to do so, I cringed every time he was on screen. I fail to see adequate reason for this to be done the way it was. It may have been intended for comedic effect, and it may have been viewed as such when the film was released, but it brings a dark stain to an otherwise excellent film.

I think the most confusing thing about this casting choice is that it doesn't really fit the tone of the rest of the film. Even if one was oblivious to the racism in this portrayal,the intended comedy really doesn't mix well with the romantic plot. In the end, this was an ultimately disappointing element to an otherwise classic film.