Must See TV

November 14, 2012

Fans of The Grapes of Wrath (or my blog post about it) and anyone curious about the circumstances leading up to it should check out Ken Burns’ new documentary The Dust Bowl airing Sunday and Monday night.


Before Midlife (and beyond)

November 8, 2012

Recently I’ve watched the movie Crazy Stupid Love a few times. It’s a very good movie with an excellent cast, and it’s a romantic comedy that isn’t formulaic (there are a few). All of the characters have flaws and seem like real people, and the story has a clever twist. And it has a (not too sappy) happy ending that leaves you in a positive state when it’s over. The only real problem I have with the movie is the perpetuation of the ridiculous “soul mate” concept that is already too widespread. It’s a silly notion, especially from a mathematical perspective.

As much as I enjoy CSL, other movies do a better job of examining the concept of love in a more thoughtful way. Arranged was very interesting in that the main characters were female teachers who were both going through the arranged marriage process (one was Muslim and one was Jewish). It was almost the opposite of the soul mate idea. They each had a limited amount of control over choosing their future spouse, and both were just looking for someone they could like and then figured that love would come with time.

More relevant for most of us is Before Sunrise, which was released in 1995. In this film a couple meets on a train and are together for less than a day before parting, and don’t know if they will ever see each other again. This idea of a relationship with a time limit is intriguing because their connection and shared experience will never be sullied by a breakup. They just have this wonderful memory to cherish.

Of course, such a well-writted and acted movie prompted a sequel, Before Sunset, which didn’t come out until 2004. In that film the characters have aged that nine years and we discover the impact of that one day on their lives. It’s an excellent follow-up that also ends in a cliffhanger. Well, in 2013 nine more years will have passed and we’re going to find out what our now-middle aged couple (the actors are just slightly younger than I am) has been up since that movie ended. Like the first sequel, the same director (Richard Linklater) has written the movie with the two lead actors. It’s titled Before Midnight and will be released early next year. Here’s to hoping that the snappy dialogue and on-screen chemistry has survived the years.

The password is what?

November 4, 2012


I’m not great at making sure my online passwords are secure. I don’t change them often enough (if ever) and some of them are a bit on the weak side (no mixture of letters and numbers or too short or whatever). But compared to most people it seems I’m not too bad. ArsTechnica posted an article that listed the most common passwords, and it’s even more predictable and silly than the yearly list of popular baby names. Here’s the top 12 with my comments in parentheses:

12. trustno1 (people still remember the X-files, I guess)

11. iloveyou (awww, unless you think about people typing it to themselves)

10. baseball (it beat football and basketball easily)

9. 111111 (64 in binary?)

8. dragon (I love Game of Thrones too)

7. letmein (I’d never seen this one before but it makes sense)

6. monkey (because people like monkeys)

5. qwerty (the dvorak keyboard folks don’t use this one)

4. abc123 (do they think of the Jackson 5 song when they type it?)

3. 12345678 (they’re getting worse now)

2. 123456 (for people too lazy to type the 7 and 8)

And finally (and predictably):

1. password (yes, people really are this stupid)

Well, I’m off to change my passwords now. Oh, and I apologize in advance for the “artsy” photos with dramatic lighting and depth of field effects I’ll be posting in the future… I bought a fancy new DSLR and just can’t help myself.

Minor Mental Flossing

October 10, 2012

I know I’ve been neglecting this blog lately (between school and coaching my time is limited) so here’s a rather lame Mental Floss facts recap to prove that I’m still alive:

• Finland leads the world in annual coffee consumption per capita at 26.5 pounds per person (USA is 9.3 lbs, but I must be part Finnish – or not).

• Until the 18th century the source of the vast majority of the world’s cinnamon was Sri Lanka.

• Applejack was the first liquor made in the American colonies. Apples were fermented into a hard cider and then left outdoors on cold nights. Removing the ice in the morning left a richer liquor.

• A University of Michigan study found that the form of communication most likely to induce honest is text messaging (blogging wasn’t mentioned).

Letters and logos

September 16, 2012

I wrote a letter to the editor this morning. I haven’t done that in a very long time (7-10 years?). I was reading the iPad version of USA Today and came across a very sensible column inspired by the Chicago teacher strike that identified one of the biggest problems in our schools. I decided to chime in with a partial solution to the problem.

This is the fourth time I’ve written a letter to USA Today, and I’m risking lowering my percentage significantly if it doesn’t get selected. So far two of my three letters were printed;I can’t remember what the rejected on was about, but I remember the other two. I’ll keep you posted on the new letter’s status.

Meanwhile, USA Today has a new logo. The old logo was certainly in need of refreshing and was looking a bit dated (the paper was founded in 1982).

Before I critique the new one, let’s look at the old one. The “line screen” effect on the globe was very popular back in the day, and in the context of being used for a printed newspaper makes a lot of sense. It also transferred a sense of dependability to a new entity since AT&T used it at the time (on a sphere and in blue no less) as did IBM (and still does since it is less complex and therefore has held up better). But now that people read their news online and on tablets something new was in order.

The new logo is typically minimalist, following the latest fashion. In the “letterhead” form on white shown above I don’t like it much at all. It’s simple to the point of being generic. If I were putting the final touches on that design I would have aligned the baseline of “TODAY” with the equator of the circle for a bit more solidity and left to right flow. Note that the letter spacing is a bit loose, suggesting it is designed for smaller sizes (letter spacing should decrease as point size increases as a general rule). The old logo used mashed together letters  which was easily read in print since the logo was quite large on the printed newspaper.

Look at the website that is still using the old logo here and you can see why they felt the need to change. The “globe” is just mush. Moving to the beta of the new website and the new logo is a big improvement, especially since here it is on black instead of white, uses larger (in relation to the circle) one-line logotype lettering, and is vertically centered with the circle.

Dust, Labor and Grapes

September 15, 2012

My tour of the classics marches on. The latest box I’ve checked is Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (I’m still trying to figure out how I was never assigned to read any of these books in high school – what the heck were we doing in English class?) For those of you who also went to crappy high schools and never read it here’s an ultra-quick non-spoiler recap: A farming family flees the dust bowl in Oklahoma (see photo above), travels to California and tries to make ends meet.

I enjoyed the book very much, though not to the level of East of Eden, which I’m already itching to read again. East had a couple of characters (Sam Hamilton and Lee) who were more likeable and philosophical than anyone in Grapes. The preacher comes closest, but he’s not as prominent a character.

More than being about the characters, Grapes is about the time period. It’s historical fiction at its best, and I learned a lot about The Dust Bowl (caused by drought and a lack of crop rotation), old cars, discrimination (people moving west were called by the derogatory term “Okies” whether they came from Oklahoma or not), and the labor movement.

Those of you who know me and my libertarian ways are aware that I’m not a fan of labor unions. I spent two years as a member of one when I was teaching in Central Falls and saw firsthand how dysfunctional and counterproductive they can be. But I do realize that there was a time when they were necessary; a time when some employers would use malicious tactics to get ever-cheaper labor from a non-mobile and desperate workforce. For instance, luring 10 times as many workers as needed to a place by promising work, and then paying an absurdly low rate once they get there due to the high demand for the jobs.

Unions today are another story. The most prominent unions are in the public sector, which baffles me. The purpose of unions is to protect workers from unfair labor practices by unethical employers, with protections ensured by the government. But why would these workers need to be protected from the very same governments that are enforcing those protections? If Mitt or Barack want my vote in November all one of them has to do is promise to create an executive order disbanding public sector unions. It would be a visionary move, since those unions are going to be a major stumbling block for balancing budgets as our state and federal government face major budget shortfalls in the coming decades. I’m not holding my breath though.

Totally my type

September 9, 2012

As I’ve become older my interests have changed a bit. I’m not the least bit excited about the start of the NFL season today and couldn’t care less about the NASCAR Chase for the Cup. It goes beyond sports too; I’m also not prone to gadget lust anymore. I’m more than content with my original 1st generation iPad and only replaced by iPhone 3G because I dropped it and wasn’t able to repair/replace the screen (gave it a shot but did more damage to the phone while opening it up due to dust).

This week, however, I’m feeling drawn towards a new Amazon product… not the new Kindle Fire HD (though it does look nice), but their new e-ink reader, the Kindle Paperwhite. My old Kindle is broken (I put it i my bag without its case once and it must have taken a whack) and I would like to replace it since e-ink is so nice to read outdoors (it really does look like paper). But it’s not the advertised new features that are tempting me (a lighted screen for reading in bed and a higher resolution). No, it’s the new typefaces they’ve added, including my favorite serif face, Palatino. I’ve always disliked Times Roman, probably because of its omnipresence but also because it lacks elegance and solidity, two things which Palatino (in the image above) has in spades. It’s amazing to me how infrequently I see Palatino, despite the fact that it’s been a standard PostScript typeface for decades.

A bridge to somewhere

August 27, 2012

On Saturday night I felt like reading, but I wanted to do it in a beautiful place. So I hopped in my car and drove down to India Point Park. I’d never spent any time there, so before I sat down to devour a few chapters of Game of Thrones I walked the waterfront park. Despite the perfect weather, the park wasn’t packed full of people, but there were enough so that it felt alive. College kids playing frisbee on the green, anglers fishing, joggers with and without dogs, couples with strollers, and an art student drawing the lovely scene. I found a comfy spot under a tree and enjoyed the book. Finally the light started to fade, and sunset made the picture even prettier. I walked the pedestrian bridge over I-195 and then moved left down to the water. It seems that area is quite “happening” these days. Clubs and restaurants were busy and people were dressed up for a night on the town. The crowd was quite young, judging by the young women teetering on ridiculously high heels. Of course, I had no such intentions and walked against the foot traffic towards and under the bridge, where I took this shot with my phone.

The park renovation and the bridge were both part of the iway project, which appears to have been a success. Truth be told, I didn’t love this bridge the first time I saw it, but now that I’ve spent more time with it and seen different angles I think it’s perfect for Providence. Recalling the glory years but with a modern feel indicating a bright future seems just about right to me.


Friends of India Point Park

DOT iway project (could use some updating)


Musketeer Musings

August 24, 2012

Thanks to an Audible download snafu, I listened to an episode of Stuff You Should Know yesterday and learned about the Three Musketeers. They were the titular characters of a series of books written by Alexandre Dumas from 1840-1860. The books take place in the early 17th century and feature real-life characters and events, making it much like the popular historical fiction you find today (though if you want to read it look in the Literature section instead).

The name Musketeer comes from the fact that they carried (and were skilled with) muskets. The musket spelled the end of armored knights since this projectile weapon could pierce plate mail, rendering it obsolete. Ironically, the fictional Musketeers rarely used their guns and swordplay is the primary mode of combat in the books. Anyone who carried a musket was technically a musketeer, and when we think of this “special forces” of great warriors we’re referring to the Musketeer of the Guard. And there were more than three of them – at some points there were as many as 150.

The main character of the books is actually d’Artagnan, a country lad who want to join the Musketeers. He does so (spoiler alert) so their elite-within-elite group is actually comprised of four Musketeers.

The numbers game gets even messier when we start talking about the candy bar. Originally, a 3 Musketeers bar consisted of three mini-candy bars of three different flavors (chocolate, strawberry, vanilla) but was changed in 1945 to what is essentially a Milky Way without the caramel.

Trivia challenge: Without looking it up, can you name the Three Musketeers?

Sneak Peak

August 16, 2012

I’ve finished my latest game! It’s the only one I completed this summer (I had hoped to get at least two done). My rough start to the summer meant a lack of focus so instead of fighting that I let myself work on whatever I felt like working on each day. That resulted in a bunch of proof of concept type apps (will this idea work?) and now I have five or six apps in development that have a decent foundation. With the school year starting soon it probably won’t be until fall until I have another one done though.

Anyway, this app is called SumDice and it’s coming out for the iPhone very soon. It takes Apple a week to ten days to approve an app (which feels like an eternity) and I sent it in a few days ago. I’ll post an update here once it’s available. The app is free, which is only way for an indie developer to get it out to enough people without an ad budget. But don’t worry, I’ll still make some money. The game has ads in it, which is handled though Apple and can be lucrative if enough people are playing. Unfortunately, Apple recently changed their policy and won’t display ads in apps made for children, so Battle Times went from making a relatively small but ever-increasing amount of money to making nothing overnight. Because of this, you probably won’t see any cartoon characters in my games again for a while (they assume that means kiddie game). In addition I’m trying to “upsell” the game once players play it and (hopefully) like it. A “Bonus Pack” will be available within the game for 99¢ that adds features including a SuperDice mode with three dice instead of two and 12 buttons instead of 9. I tried that method with Battle Times HD (iPad) and it hasn’t worked out too well, but I blame that more on the interface (not linear enough) and audience (too young). If the in-app purchase in this one works I’ll modify the menus in that one to see if it helps.

To promote SumDice I’ve created the web version (click here to play) that required a bit of juggling and graphic modification since the iPhone version is “portrait” and web apps are “landscape.” Other than that it plays a lot like the iPhone game, except without some of the iOS-specific features like Game Center leader boards and achievements. I did manage to include the in-game mini-math-lesson. Look for it under “Options” as “Odds and Ends.” Enjoy!

P.S. I tried to embed the game on this page, but WordPress wouldn’t let me do that for some reason.