Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My 2013

There's three reasons I wanted to write this.  When I think back on this year, it's all a bit of a jumble of details, and I wanted to get it clearer.  When I think back to what happened in my life in any given year in the past, I can hardly remember any specific details, so I wanted this to be a way to help me remember this year in the future.  And I think it's nice to share a bit about what's been going on in your life.  I always like hearing about what others have been up to.

This is the first time I've tried writing something like this.  I found it very difficult!  It was hard to know what kinds of details to put into it and how to structure it.  Hopefully the experience of doing it this year will make me better at this kind of thing in the future.

(Details about the books, films, TV shows, games, and music I experienced this year are here).

Overall, it wasn't a bad year.  I moved forwards with a number of things.  And of course I have to make special mention of M -- thank you for everything this year.



PhD

I made some solid progress with my PhD.  For the five or so years prior to 2013 I'd been working part-time, but this year I didn't have a job so was able to work full-time on my PhD.  And after nine years of working on it, I finally got over that hump in explaining the ideas and started writing it up, and got through early drafts of several chapters.  I'm aiming to finish it by the end of 2014.

The amount of time it's been taking has weighed on me a bit this year.  It's been nine years of very little money or free time, and a big opportunity cost in terms of career development and life in general.  It feels a bit like life has been put on hold over those years.  But still it is ultimately what I want to be doing, and I still believe there'll be a worthwhile payoff in the end.


Health

The breathing problems, and the consequent sleeping problems, that have plagued me over the last couple of years thankfully started to settle down towards the end of this year, and there's been general improvement in all my health problems (some of the areas where the muscles are ridiculously weak are slowly getting stronger and I'm slowly getting increased flexibility).  But still, those problems had a bit impact on my productivity, and meant I had less productive time each day, and consequently that a larger proportion of it has to be spent on PhD writing.  Which has meant I haven't caught up with friends that much, or done much in the way of other activities, this year.

Half way through the year I discovered, to my surprise, that I'm gluten intolerant.  Long story short, my health has improved a fair bit after getting off gluten (and now that my body has had time to recover, even fairly small amounts of gluten effect me pretty badly).  There is an intriguing link between the gluten and my musculo-skeletal/neurological problems, but it seems there currently just isn't enough medical knowledge about such things.  I'm hoping that in the longer term being off gluten will help reduce those problems.  The next step is to see what sort of tests I can get done and figure out whether it is just an intolerance or Celiac disease. 


Slow Carb diet

When I first started going gluten-free I went on the Slow Carb diet as a means to make it easier to be gluten-free but also just to lose weight.  I managed to lose 13 kgs quite quickly and have kept it off.  The diet is pretty well designed: I never felt hungry, and the weekly 'cheat day', when you can eat whatever you like, helps keep it sustainable. 


The 'cheat day' as a weekly break and day to work on other projects

The weekly 'cheat day' (on Sunday) felt like a little holiday, so I ended up deciding that, instead of working on PhD writing 7 days a week, I'd take Sundays off, which turned out to make a good weekly routine.  On Sundays I started doing some recreational things like watching a DVD, going for a walk, and playing some games.  I'd always tried in the past to make headway on some non PhD projects, but I'd never been able to regularly find the time, but now I spend 2 hours each Sunday on them, which has been great.  This year I was programming a proof-of-concept of my fan menus idea (which is still in progress).


Podcasts and getting back into games

A big part of my day-to-day routine over the last few years has been all my prepartion for getting to bed -- hotpacks, traction and stretches -- so that I can have a chance of sleeping, what with all the bad breathing problems stemming from the musculo-skeletal stuff etc.

At some point this year I started listening to podcasts while doing the stretches.  I ended up listening to ones on Indie game development.  First, the The Game Engine podcast, and then when I'd gone through all of the episodes of that, the Big Sushi podcasts.  I found it inspiring listening to people talking about the process, and hearing about how much more accessible game development is these days (compared to when I was back at uni in the 90s).  Makes me feel like I'd like to have a go at it sometime and try out some of my interactive storytelling ideas.

Over the last 15 or so years I mostly haven't played games much, but with listening to those podcasts and having Sundays off, I started playing some more computer games, particularly ones focused on interactive storytelling.  I wanted to get more of a sense of what's out there.  Partially for the interactive storytelling ideas, but also because games in general seems to be an area where there's a reasonable amount of innovation.  With my interest in education/communication/user interfaces, it's always interesting to see where you can get inspiration from.  Playing more games has meant I've read less this year. 


Noisy Neighbours

This year was my second one spent living at Corinda, which is a fairly nice place.  But our neighbours have been a problem.  After moving from Indooroopilly to avoid problems with horrible neighbours-noise, we've ended up with awful neighbours that are so disruptive and stressful.  Initially the ones from the gray house nearby, who were loud at night and into the mornings.  But they ended up quietening down then moving out.  Now it's the ones at the white house, who are constantly screaming (angrily, at the tops of their lungs) at each other.  Makes it unpleasant living here.

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Not having a job has meant needing to be fairly frugal.  Didn't do much in the way of activities this year, and didn't go on any holidays.  A few miscellaneous things:

  • Several weddings this year.  In March there was Mark and Adele's over on Stradbroke Island.  Then there were several overseas weddings that I would have loved to have gone to, but didn't have the time or money to do so: my cousin We Chong's, my cousing Pei Li's, and my friend Lehka's.
  • Dad and Debbie were in Western Australia this year.  Dad working up at Pilbera, first working directly on train lines, then surveying, then managing stores.  Debbie at the store in Fremantle.  Dad come over here a couple of times during year.
  • My four-year old iPhone 3GS stopped working, so I got a silver iPhone 5S.

Overall, this hasn't been a bad year.  I'm glad that my health problems have improved, and finding out about the gluten intolerance has been a big thing for me.  The PhD has been a really long journey and I'm really looking forwards to getting it done within the next year or so.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

My 2013 in books, games, film, tv and music


What I read (saw, played, etc) in 2013.  Most of these weren't released in 2013, though.


My top picks, the ones that stood out:

  • The game "The Walking Dead" (season 1)

    Though I still don't think interactive storytelling has truly lived up to its potential, The Walking Dead does a pretty damn good job.  It's a pretty powerful experience.  Even if you don't like computer games, it's worth taking a look at.



  • The movie "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"

    Deservedly a classic.  Quite enjoyable, never too predictable, and has a good ending.  I really liked how it felt quite naturalistic, with the plot arising organically from the situation.



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Also worth a mention
  • Books
    • I didn't get to read that many books this year, but out of those I did, the best ones were:
    • Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee. Nice memoir of childhood in Cotswold village in 1920s. The writing is mostly pretty good.
    • The Main Dish (Kindle Single), Michael Ruhlman. Interesting look at how, to the author's surprise, he ended up becoming a food and cookbook author. Well written and pretty funny.
  • Games
  • Films
    • Kumare. Pretty interesting and thought provoking.
    • Indie Game: The Movie. Doco about the journey of some indie-game developers as they're making their games.
    • Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Interesting doco about Jiro Ono, a master sushi maker, and his philosophy on work and striving for perfection.
    • Unforgiven.  Quite good.  Been wanting to see this movie for so long - glad I finally got around to it.
    • Once Upon a Time in the West. Style wins over substance, but a pretty good triumph. Visuals and music were excellent. Intriguing all the way through.
    • The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.   Good, though I liked "Once Upon a Time in the West" (also by Sergio Leone) a little more.
  • Music
    • I didn't listen to much new music this year.  For whatever reason, I just haven't been into music as much lately.  Part of it's that most of the time I'm listening to music I'm doing PhD writing, and I find vocals a bit too distracting, so I only listen to instrumental stuff (mostly electronic stuff) and I don't really know of a good way of finding out about new releases of the sort I like.
    • Tomorrow's Harvest, by Boards of Canada.  It's a good album but I don't like the bleaker aesthetic on it as much as that on their earlier albums.
  • TV shows
    • Derek, season 1.  Ricky Gervais comedy/drama.

Decent
  • Books
  • Games
    • Gone Home.  An admirable experiment interactive storytelling, but ultimately I don't think it works that well.  Worth a look if you're interested in how interactive storytelling can be done.
    • Katawa Shoujo.  A straight-up "visual novel", so pretty much just a matter of reading through it rather than being a game.  Wasn't bad, but targeted more at teens than someone like me (I was curious about these visual novels and this was one people recommended).
    • "Fester Mudd" episode 1 (on iOS).
    • "The Silent Age" episode 1.
    • The Majesty of Colors.  A quick play.  Ok, but nothing special.
    • Proteus.  Ok, but I found it a little dull
    • Sourcery!  I was interested to see what those "game books" are like.  Good presentation and I think good for what it is, but not really my kind of thing.  Even though it is textual, it doesn't feel like a story to me.
    • MIMPI.  Puzzle platformer where you play as a dog.  Some frustrating puzzles and controls can be frustrating, but otherwise pretty decent.
  • Films
  • TV shows
    • Broadchurch, season 1
    • The Shield, seasons 1 & 2.  Pretty decent -- and compared to most tv shows, pretty good -- but it too often relies on improbable escapes from tricky situations.  We decided not to watch the rest of the seasons.  Our search for another show that can stand up to The Wire continues...

Okay


Bit Meh
  • Books
    • The Last Website.  Nice presentation but the story didn't do much for me.  Far too obtuse.
  • Games
    • The Novelist.  An experiment in interactive storytelling that doesn't work.  I mostly agree with these reviews.
    • Galatea.  A textual 'interactive fiction' game.  Didn't find it interesting.
    • De Baron.  Also interactive fiction.  Didn't do much for me.
    • The Graveyard.  Nothing to really engage with in it, so its hard to get emotional impact from it.
  • Films
    • Rashomon.  Interesting idea, but it wasn't well capitalised on.  Dull, and doesn't convey anything interesting through the use of the multiple perspectives.  I've only seen one other Kurosawa film so far, The Seven Samurai, but I thought that was much better.

Lots Meh
  • Books
    • Juniper's Knot.  Lame. Adolescent-quality writing and content, and the way animation/interactivity was used actually detracted from things.
  • Games

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Places I've Lived, via streetview photos

On a whim, I thought I'd use Google Maps street view to look up all the places I've lived.  I haven't included any of my relatively brief stays overseas - all the ones here are from south-east Queensland.  Here they are in chronological order:


Burpengary



Hamilton.  I ended up living in both of the townhouses at the front.



Indooroopilly



Grange



Auchenflower



Auchenflower



Toowong



Taringa



Toowong



West End



Indooroopilly



Indooroopilly. Looks like somebody spotted the street view car.



Corinda.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Idea: a remote-controlled car as a modern-day Logo-turtle


Just a random thought.

You could do a modern take on the old Logo turtle-robot, but with a remote-control car whose movement you could program, wirelessly, via a smart-phone or tablet.




If you're not familiar with Logo, the "turtle" was a simple robot on wheels with a pen attached to it.  You sat it down on a big piece of paper and as it moved along the pen traced out its path on the paper.  Logo was the simple programming language used to tell the turtle what to do (e.g. 'move forwards 10 units', 'turn 45 degrees right', 'move forwards 5 units', etc).  You'd write the program then send it to the turtle which would slowly move around according to the commands in your program, and if you programmed it right it could draw out all sorts of shapes and patterns.  The system was for teaching kids the basic concepts behind programming.




A Logo 'turtle'. Image source


But what if instead of the turtle you had a remote-controlled car?  Instead of directly controlling its behaviour with a normal RC controller, you'd control it like the turtle, by writing a program that sets out the movements it should perform.  Specifying this with a smart-phone or tablet would make sense - the instructions could be sent wirelessly to the car.

Compared to the traditional turtle an RC car would be faster, have acceleration and braking, and could travel over rough and varied surfaces.

Instead of being about drawing patterns on paper, it could be about getting the car to successfully navigate the physical environment.  It might be in your backyard, and avoiding trees, going down slopes, traversing small mounds, etc.  Where there's obstacles, the possibility for jumps, and so forth.  Where obstacles could form signposts for a track.

I suspect that, rather than programming it by telling it to move by a certain distance or to turn by a certain number of degrees, you'd want commands like 'move at 75% throttle for 5 seconds' and '50% right turn for 1 second' (where '100% right turn' would mean turn as sharply right as possible, so 50% means turn half as sharply).

The hope would be that kids would find this kind of thing fun.  Rather than having a more abstract goal of drawing certain shapes, they'd have more tangible goals like navigating around the physical space, getting it to do a jump over a curb, etc.  That a remote control car can go pretty fast would hopefully make it more exciting, too.

I would imagine that if a bunch of kids got together and they had several of these cars, they could try and race them or set up some other kind of competition (e.g. trying to get the cars to ram each other, maybe to knock one over).

Electronics are so much cheaper these days, so I imagine that cost or getting the necessary parts to do something like wouldn't be too much of a barrier.  (And if you are wondering whether I have any thoughts about trying it out, I don't.  It'd be nice to try but I'm working on other things at the moment.  Just thought I'd get the idea out there).

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Of course, there'd be a lot more to think about to think this through properly.  E.g. Logo has the equivalent of procedures, which can be useful for drawing shapes and patterns, and these are a form of abstraction you want to teach.  Would there be some motivation for utilising procedures if the focus wasn't on drawing patterns?


Thursday, May 02, 2013

Allowing wiki-style edits on every single web-page

As everyone knows, anybody can edit any page on Wikipedia.  What if anybody could also make edits on every single page on the internet?

I mean every - a corporate site's 'about' page, their CEO's bio page, the Amazon.com description of a book, a post on someone's personal blog, a news story.  Anything.

Sound crazy?  No doubt about it.  But here's a slightly less crazy way it could be handled:

  • Edits don't change the public version of the page.
      
    • All edits are publicly accessible via a standard [edits] link on each page, and the page owner gets to choose whether to accept, reject or ignore any of them.
        
  • You must log-in with a public identity (Facebook, Google+, etc) to make an edit.
      
    • To help deal with trolls.
Why let anyone edit any page?  For the same reasons Wikipedia does: to allow people to suggest corrections and enhancements.

People like feeling that they've made a contribution, and if their contributions are useful and get taken up that can add to their reputation.   Such a system would help better harness the talent out there.  Or such is the hope.

Some slightly more technical points:
  • The site owner could possibly even mark someone's edits as trolling, where both the edits and who marked them as trolling are public information, and if people's edits across the internet were aggregated it might further discourage trolling.
  • What if the changes a person suggests concern information that comes from a database rather than a static page?  If the page owner thinks it's a good contribution then they'd have to change the relevant data in the database.
Obviously there'd be various technical issues in implementing this.  Presumably these days storage space for the edits wouldn't be much of an issue.  Perhaps the ability for storing each person's edits for a page could be handled by a standard feature of the web-server.  Naturally there'd be issues with how the editing interface is provided, how the edits are described, etc.  This post is more just about the general idea rather than all of the hurdles it'd have to overcome to make it practical.

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EDIT 5 May 2013: I originally used Wikipedia as a model for this idea.  Github is another model you could think of it in terms of.  On Github you can fork anyone's project to make improvements to it.  Doing so doesn't effect the original project.  You can send the owner of the project a pull-request suggesting for them to incorporate your changes.  They can ignore that if they wish, but if they decide they like your suggested changes they can make use of them.  What I'm suggesting is a standard, structured way for anyone to suggest changes to a web-pages.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Things to try: tequila edition


Until recently, my only experience of tequlia had been tequila shots and the 'lip, sip, suck' (salt, tequila, lime) drill.  I didn't know that shots typically used just one type of tequila, and that there are other types with different types of flavours.

Silver (or 'white') tequila is what they normally use in shots.  Silver tequila is un-aged and has a rawer, more vegetal taste.  All the other types are aged.









There's Reposado which is aged for less than a year.  ~AUD$40-50 upwards







Añejo which is aged for one to three years.  ~AUD$70 upwards (often over $100).  There's also an Extra Añejo category, which is aged even longer.





Gold tequila (known as Joven or oro tequila) is a mixture of a silver tequila and an aged tequila.






Trying them.

Reposado tequila has a nice smooth, earthy flavour.  I reckon it goes best 1:1 with some soda water.  The slight bite of soda water suits it (soda water is preferable to mineral water, which is preferable to still water).  You can also sip it straight.  Of those I've tried, El Espolon is my favourite, el Jimador is decent, and I'd steer clear of the Sierra reposado - it's not very nice.

I haven't tried an Añejo yet, but presumably it's similar to a Reposado.

I find Silver tequila goes well with generous amount of soda water and a dash of lime juice, or with tonic water.


Other things.

Watermelon wedges soaked in Reposado tequila tastes great!

If gluten is a problem for you, good quality tequilas are 100% gluten free.  Tequila is made from the blue agave plant, and the good quality tequilas will say "100% blue agave" on the label - these are completely gluten free.  If the label doesn't say that, then the tequila will be a Mixto, which includes other ingredients, and these mightn't be gluten free.  More info.

Oh, and this is what blue agave plants look like:


the 'hearts' of the plants, from which the tequila is made. source.


Wikipedia page on tequila



I'd like a 'Lessons Learnt' episode of Grand Designs


It must be Grand Designs season on this blog, coz this post makes two in a row about the show.

That show's been going for over ten years and they've probably featured around 100 homes.  So what are the lessons learnt?  Are there any lessons to be learnt?  Any common patterns to successes or to failures?  Any other types of patterns (concerning: aesthetics, construction materials, amount or type of planning done, use of experts, etc etc)?

It could make for an interesting episode.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Visually comparing the different stages of a house's construction


I was just watching the tv show Grand Designs.  It's nice to see the development of a house from plans, through construction to the finished design.

One thing I find, though, is that it's always hard to connect the before and after.  You see the after shot and it's hard to remember what that spot looked like at different stages in the construction, and it made me think about how you make those details more apparent.

They could show the exact same shot -- with the camera in the exact same location, pointing in the exact same direction -- at different points in the house's development, starting with the empty site, when the foundations are up, when the wall frames are up, when the roof and walls are done, and when it's fully furnished.  They could run through them in chronological order, transitioning between them by fading the current one out and at the same time fading the next one in, so you could see a bit more of the relationship between the two.

Such a technique could also be employed on moving shots, such as a shot that sweeps across a room, or one that starts at one end of a long room, facing towards the other end of the room, and then moves towards the other end of the room.  As the camera moves along, the imagery could seamlessly progress between the different stages of the development.

And of course such techniques lend themselves to some sort of interactive presentation on a web-site.  (It makes me think of these interactive before-and-after photos of the recent Brisbane floods.)