Travel Observations

Posted: November 25, 2011 in Uncategorized

Went on a trip to Australia!   I left at noon on Friday and didn’t arrive until the next Tuesday morning.   That’s about 3 full days of

Hong Kong skyrises seen from the train

traveling to get to my destination which is kind of a lot now that I think about it.   I flew to Dallas and back, spent a night in LA  due to a Qantas labor dispute that developed while we were pulling onto the runway, and eventually wound up spending a day in Hong Kong.

It’s interesting winding up in a country without the slightest bit of knowledge about the location.    I had no idea where Hong-Kong was located in China or even which language was predominant there.    With a 12 hour layover, the plan was to get out of the airport, find some Dim Sum and maybe purchase some cheap electronics.    Being stuck hanging around airports with business travelers the past few days had given me some iPad and smartphone envy and it was becoming clear I would need some means of accessing the internet.   So I was ready to buy whatever sketchy Android or tablet I could find off of the street, but I wound up being pleasantly surprised by the service at the reputable Fortress Electronics retailer.    I’m not sure if particular smartphones are really any cheaper at Hong-Kong retail stores, but the unlocked phone market is more mature so they had a much wider selection of devices across the price range than the Best-Buy in Irvine.

City-building in Hong Kong seems to rely a lot on copy-paste.   It’s as if they were too cheap to pay an architect for multiple building

this photo from the WSJ shows a more extreme case

designs so they just reused the same one over and over.   Riding the train from the airport it’s not unusual at all to see clusters of six or so of the same giant highrise housing.   It makes for some ugly city design, but it gets a little better once you get downtown where the real skyscrapers are.    It’s the world’s most vertical city, and sometimes looks absurd on the outskirts since there are very few supporting smaller buildings.    The look reminds me a bit of Limbo from Inception.    Wikipedia thinks Hong-Kong has one of the best skylines- maybe I should change this.

Speaking of being cheap, Hong Kong’s financial district is probably one of the best places in the world to change money, US to HKD was exchanged 7.7 one way and 7.8 the other way with no exchange fees (one place undercut to 7.79).   That’s pretty cut-throat!

Opera house as seen from botanical garden outlook

And speaking of architecture (skipping forward to Oz), the Sydney Opera House was a surprise highlight of the trip.   I’ve always known it to be one of the world’s iconic buildings, but the building is phenomenal to perceive and an absolute work of genius.     The location overlooking the harbor is extremely classy and the building manages to look beautifully elegant up close and from any angle.   I consider it the best piece of architecture in the world.

Australia is the perfect example of a parallel universe.    Arriving in the country I

that's a funny looking pidgeon...

immediately felt at home but as I continued on the train, small incongruous details began popping up.       What was that funny looking bird with the long beak?     And why where all of the girls dressed up with flowers in their hats like they came from 1940’s Britain?   Further along you’d notice the accents and the prevalence of meat pies.   And let’s not forget marsupials: you have kangaroos instead of deer and wallabies instead of rabbits.

Australian food isn’t so different, but a typical convenience store would feature different warm foods than our 7-11’s.   There’s the sausage roll, the meat pie, sausage crumble, and various other fried foods.   It all looked delicious, but the fried stuff I tried wasn’t very satisfying so I mostly stuck with meat pies.    The fast food chain pie-face puts a different face on each flavor of pie and I’d welcome the chain in the US at an appropriate price point.     Another of Australia’s food successes lies in their approach to the hamburger.   A burger will typically come with beets and cucumber slices on board.   The beet works as a great tomato alternative, but I think they’re usually both served together.   Bacon and eggs can also be served on the burger which makes it very hearty if not necessarily healthy.    Sweet chili sauce (Vietnamese?) is also a popular condiment, maybe more so than ketchup.   I first had it on a delicious chicken salad wrap, but it goes well with many things, even french fries.   Vegemite is extremely salty and I wasn’t sure what it was appropriate to eat it on – other tourists seemed to treat it mostly as a joke food.

I think I’ve made my main points by now but I’ll continue rambling about my trip, since this will probably be my main record of the journey.

Hong Kong airport stretches on into the distance

The Hong-Kong airport has an interesting roof making it look like one long tent.    One thing the Asian countries I’ve visited so far seem to excel at is placing malls inside transportation centers.    Most US airports I’ve been to have only a sprinkling of overpriced restaurants and souvenir/convenience stores.     I imagine recent security restrictions are to blame for some of this, but I know we can do better.   Dallas seemed to have a pretty good mall, and it seems a shame not to exploit the consumerism of trapped waiting tourists by offering them serious shopping options.     US public transportation is fairly poor, but the difference is blindingly obvious in subway stations.   A BART station is lucky to even have a nearby coffee shop, but in Japan every train station is an excuse for a giant underground mall.    The Hong-Kong station stretches from underground mall up partway into the skyscrapers and continues for several blocks via sky walkways.    There were many levels of city; the sky mall, the street-level shops, underground mall, and the businesses above in the high-rises.

Over the course of the trip I wound up flying a lot of airlines and watching a lot of in-flight movies.    Qantas seems a pretty nice airline, decent food, and hopefully they’ll pay for my rescheduled flights like they promised.   On my grounded flight I was put aboard a brand new refurbished 747 with Airbus seating (with carbon fiber!).   It was a very nice plane, and I would have liked to actually fly on it instead of just watching Transformers 3 (which is much better than 2).    I got a very bad impression of American Airlines.   This is mostly due to flying from California to Dallas and back (about 8 hours during dinner time) and not even receiving peanuts as a snack.  They served one Sprite each way.    Sure it’s a domestic flight, but the simple gesture of crackers or cookies makes a big difference.    This places United Airlines as my favored major US carrier.   I don’t know for sure if they would have given me peanuts, but when I missed my flight from Japan they put me on a free flight with a daytime layover in Hawaii, which is worth quite a few peanut points.    A similar occurrence on Delta resulted in a $300 penalty fee.

I almost missed my connecting flight in Sydney because the International terminal is located about 30 minutes by shuttle from the domestic terminal.   Transportation between the two terminals is very poorly organized by individual airlines.    Be careful when scheduling connecting flights.

In Australia we went to the zoo owned by the Steve Irwin family.   As you can imagine it has grown considerably in recent years and is now one of the largest zoos in Australia.   The zoo took a strong stance against hunting of Australian wildlife, so I wound up avoiding eating any kangaroos until I was sure they were farmed.   The kangaroo I tried on pizza tasted a bit like chewier lamb – pretty good.  They also sell stuffed kangaroo scrotums as charms/gag gifts, which is plain disturbing.

Scuba diving was fun, but I was pretty worried going in since I barely passed the certification.  At night they throw food to a bunch of sharks and then throw you in the water once they’ve gathered.    Considering the size of the sharks it’s a little disconcerting.

how many can you recognize?

When creating a new character design I propose this simple test.   If the character can be recognized by a sketch as minimalist as in Grégoire Guillemen’s famous capsules, then your character has the potential to become a successful cultural icon. Of course there’s plenty of applications where you can make a more mundane looking character, but for branding purposes a character should be instantly recognizable by a few simple colors and shapes.

On this note check out these minimalist Pokemon wallpapers at the 493 if you haven’t yet.

Next Generation Devices

Posted: October 9, 2011 in Uncategorized

Well this post has been a long time coming.

This January Sony announced the NGP (Vita), a successor to the PlayStation Portable which taps into the touchscreen market in a clever way to avoid the user’s finger from blocking the screen.    Otherwise the device boasts the high-end graphics and dual analog controls that you would expect.    Sony will probably join Nintendo in the unusual situation of having a portable device as expensive as a home console – in the midst of an economic crisis no less.

Watching this announcement however, I couldn’t help but feel that this was actually less important than the other announcement it overshadowed.    At the same press conference Sony announced the PlayStation Suite.     I like to think of it as the PlayStation Backup plan.    Sony plans to certify Android phones, tablets and other devices capable of playing games from the PlayStation store.    They’ll start with a modest selection of PS1 games, but I expect this will eventually grow as big as selections such as Nintendo’s Virtual Console.    As the service expands, Sony will be able to leverage their entire back-catalog of games for sale on virtually any device.     It’s great if you’re a fan of old games.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they expand the service to include all PS2 games and even some Vista releases.   This is especially important as analysts continue to prophesize the end of traditional portable gaming devices.     They claim consumers no longer want to carry multiple expensive electronic devices, and that the future of gaming lies with iPhones and Droids.     Whether they’re right remains to be seen, but it looks like Sony doesn’t want to take any chances.

Speaking of next gen devices, the 3DS has had a pretty clumsy launch.    It premiered at E3 with plenty of support, but they were mostly tech demos or remakes of older games, and not enough of them materialized in time for launch.      Sales suffered enough that Nintendo decided to prematurely drastically slash the price.    Additionally it appears that developers finally made Nintendo realize how important dual analog sticks were to them.    Expect a hardware redesign soon after this holiday season to get rid of the clumsy external analog stick.      It remains to be seen how well the 3DS can do.    While 3D vision does finally let you hit mystery blocks properly in Mario, it’s seen as mostly as an expensive gimmick.    I’m also a little worried that the 3Ds may essentially kill portable 2D gaming on Nintendo.

The WiiU is an intriguing piece of hardware.   Nintendo’s stocks plummeted after the announcement but I’m sure they’ll be just fine after next year’s E3.    The WiiU is especially strong for tactical style games.    The only oversight is it does not yet have any announced support for multiple tablets.    Even though they’re bound to be expensive, I think it’s crucial for the system to support at least 2 for local multiplayer.     I’d like to actually put together a little collection of WiiU game possibilities if I ever have the time.   For those whose imaginations need a little stimulation on the system’s potentials check out this Ghost Recon trailer.      The second weakness of the WiiU will again be the power.   The Zelda nerd in me (have you read this blog?) was excited by the Zelda tech demo, but I know there’s no way Nintendo will make a system that matches the specs of the next series of Xbox and Playstations.     Nintendo has created an HD console at least comparable to current systems but not clearly superior.   Still it may be that graphics are becoming less and less important as we will become less able to distinguish improvements.    I believe the next generation will be more about processors than graphics cards in terms of the number of things that can be rendered.  Apparently the WiiU processor is based off of the Jeopardy-winning IBM, so it’s probably not doing too badly in that regard.

Final Fantasy Flowchart

Posted: October 9, 2011 in Uncategorized

Understanding the relation of Final Fantasy GamesYou know, I’ve never even beaten a Final Fantasy game, but this is a flowchart I felt need to be made.     For a game supposedly on its 14th entry, there’s been at least 40 games released with the suffix Final Fantasy.    Combined with all of the various spinoffs it’s simply too much to keep track of.   Hopefully this schematic will help.

Other flowcharts dying to be made:  Varieties of Cheese.     Desserts by Ingredients.

Props to Eric Wall for this flowchart of Game Developer Studios.

Zelda Mosaic

Posted: January 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

This is inspired by a couple of  Zelda mosaics which were circulating the gaming blogs a couple of weeks back.   Since programs like Andrea Mosaic can generate these mosaics, I figured I could use it to make a better one.

I scoured the internet to make a collection of around 1500 Zelda images, featuring screenshots and art from every Zelda game and a few bonus images as well.   ZeldaLegends.net was a good source of images.  Warning: these mosaics are large (about 30MB each), but each one is one of the best collection of Zelda images I’ve ever seen.    If you can’t see it well in your browser, I find it works pretty well to view them in Windows Photo Viewer.

The first mosaic uses unaltered images.   For this second image I used a slight “cheat”, allowing an alteration of the original color by 10% to improve the quality of the mosaic without affecting the original images too severely.

Choosing RAM

Posted: December 22, 2010 in Uncategorized

thanks WikipediaUpgrading RAM is one of the cheapest and easiest upgrades to your computer, although weeding through all of the technical data can make the process a bit more difficult. I’ll try to break down the mysticism surrounding the types of RAM a bit.

The Basics

RAM is the memory workspace your computer uses to store currently running programs and their data. If the memory requirements of the programs you are running exceed the amount of RAM installed on your computer, it will have to use more space called “virtual memory” on the hard drive. While this can help create the appearance of additional memory, accessing memory on the hard drive can be excruciatingly slow (1000s of times slower than RAM) making your computer essentially inoperable even with the best of processors. You can check whether your computer is relying too heavily on virtual memory by checking your memory usage in task manager. If the total virtual memory labeled as “Commit” charge exceeds the amount of physical memory, or if your RAM usage often goes to above about 80%, you could likely benefit from additional RAM.

Finding out what’s in your Computer

Modern computers are usually built to make accessing the RAM relatively easy with only a screwdriver. You can check to see how many slots your computer has available for RAM, and if you’re lucky the RAM will be labeled with its specifications. If not, you can use a program like Speccy or PC Wizard to determine what hardware is installed. Since your motherboard and processor will be compatible with a relatively small subset of RAM types, it’s always a safe bet to replace your RAM with more of the same type. Crucial.com or your manufacturer’s website can help you to find RAM which is guaranteed to be compatible with your model. If you want to do the shopping yourself, however, we’ll need to learn a bit about the different types of RAM.

DDR, DDR2, DDR3

Most computers built in the last decade use either the DDR, DDR2, or DDR3 specification of RAM (or if you’re from the future, maybe DDR4?). DDR3 is the newest and fastest of the batch, transmitting at 8x the speed of the internal memory clock, while DDR2 and DDR transmit at 4x and 2x the clock speed respectively. Since they operate at different voltages the different memory types are completely incompatible with each other, meaning you’re not going to be able to upgrade your DDR memory to DDR3 without completely replacing the motherboard- it won’t even fit into the socket.

Frequency

The key value in terms of speed of memory is the Data Rate. This is usually indicated immediately after the specification of the memory type. For instance, DDR-400 has a data transfer rate of 400 million transfers per second, while DDR3-1600 transmits data 1600 million times per second.

Manufacturers will often also give a second frequency, representing the bandwidth of the RAM such as PC3-12800. This number is simply 8 times the data rate (since a 64 bit transfer consists of 8 bytes), and so this alternative classification system is completely redundant. Some examples are DDR-200 PC-1600, DDR2-800 PC2-6400, and DDR3-1333 PC3 10600. All DDR3-1333 memory should be classified as PC3 10600, however some manufacturers round differently. As a result websites such as Newegg.com sometimes make you choose between PC3 10600, PC3 10660 and PC3 10666 when all three products are in fact identical.

Your motherboard will likely have a maximum supported frequency.    Higher frequency RAM should still work on your computer, they will just be slowed to the supported data frequency.   To check which speeds are supported, again use a site such as Crucial.com .

Capacity and DIMMs

If you’re upgrading your RAM, you’re probably doing so to increase the total capacity in GB of your memory. Before you get your hopes too high though, check your manufacturer’s data to find the limits your processor and motherboard place on the maximum capacity of supported RAM. Oftentimes you’ll find that you are only able to double the capacity. Still, to a sluggish computer this can make a world of difference.

Each doublesided “card” of memory is referred to as a Dual In-line Memory Module (DIMM). Memory can be either bought individually or in matched pairs, so be careful to avoid buying 2x2GB sticks when you really want a 4GB stick. It’s generally recommended to buy your RAM in these matching pairs to insure the best compatibility. Also, keep in mind that laptop memory is a different size than what is used in most PCs. Memory used in laptops or compact PCs is referred to as SO-DIMM or Small Outline Dual In-line Memory Modules.    A pin number is often specified, which is another redundant way of verifying which slot size the RAM fits into- DDR3 SO-DIMM has 204 pins for instance.  

Memory designed for servers is also generally incompatible with normal desktops, even though it will fit in the slot.   This server memory is marked as ECC registered, which means that it has error correcting code providing higher reliability at the expense of speed.    But unless otherwise indicated, assume that your computer can only use non-ECC RAM.   

Latency

The delay in clock cycles in locating an address in memory is referred to as the latency of the memory. The latency timing is usually given as a sequence of 4 timing measurements, such as 9-9-9-24. Sometimes only the first value, known as the CAS latency is given, since this is considered the most important. For our purposes, all we really need to know is that lower latency is best. Latency timings are really only important to those wanting to juice the last bit of performance out of their RAM.

Conclusion

A typical RAM product description is given as 1GB 200-Pin DDR2 SO-DIMM DDR2 800 (PC2 6400) Laptop Memory . Hopefully now you can understand what these specifications mean so you’ll be able to make educated buying decisions. As long as you double-check that your motherboard supports the needed capacity and frequency you shouldn’t have too much trouble. If your interested in learning more about types of RAM I found this article helpful.

Electric Sheep

Posted: December 19, 2010 in Uncategorized

Flame Fractal generated by Electric Sheep

This program is beautiful.  http://electricsheep.com .   The name comes of course from Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which was adapted into the movie Blade Runner.    Electric Sheep the program makes real the concept of computer dreams through a screensaver which comes on when your computer sleeps.    This screensaver utilizes distributed computing (similarly to SETI@HOME or folding@HOME) to generate computer fractal “dreams” referred to as “sheep”.    Each of the 350,000 computers running the screensaver will contribute to rendering a portion of the fractal flame animation.      Once completed, the frames are converted into video clips and distributed to the computers running the screensaver.    Users can vote for their favorite fractals, which will then contribute their genetic material to the next generation of sheep.   Through this thousands of sleeping computers are able to render beautiful images evolving to the aesthetic tastes of their users.  How good are the results?  See for yourself.