Category Archives: geek stuff

On Passing

Browsing podcasts via iTunes

Browsing podcasts via iTunes

I listen to a lot of podcasts.  A lot of podcasts.  I’m subscribed to over 20 different ones currently and am far, far behind on listening to many of them.  Though I tend to listen to NPR through this “time-shifted” mechanism, it’s also how I keep up on video games.  Incidentally, long before the concept of a “podcast” entered our collective consciousness, those involved in the tech industry saw these recordings as a great way to engage with their communities in a way that writing articles simply didn’t: put all of your authors in a room to talk about stuff that happened in that week, so if people want to listen to your content instead of read it, then they can.  As gamers tend to be technologically oriented, it makes sense that podcasts centered on video games sprung up like weeds long before any others did.

When I was first jumping back into video games, circa 2004-2005, Drunken Gamers Radio was one of the first ones I gravitated toward.  It was great listening to three best friends up in Minneapolis talking about games in a very “real” sense.  They weren’t people in the industry: they just had a hobby and wanted to record the stuff they talked about.  And it was hilarious.  Over the years as the three grew older, had families, and had less time to devote to gaming, the show branched out talking about cooking, brewing, movies, music, and more.  But it was always fun just listening to three friends talk about whatever they wanted to talk about.  You felt as if you had known them for years.  That you went to high school together and were just hanging out on their back patio.  They’ve been recording these podcasts for over 7 years now.

Another favorite is the Giant Bombcast, hosted by Giant Bomb.com.  This one is more of a “traditional video game podcast” in that 5 video game journalists talk about what they played that week, recent news items, and answer e-mails from fans.  Their cast of characters changed from time to time, but the core group has stayed the same for over 380 episodes.  Again, similarly to DGR, listening to them for weeks (and years) on end makes it seem like you know them.  They aren’t just “putting on a show” for people to listen to, or playing a role for the microphone: this is them talking about their favorite hobbies.  The listener feels like they could be friends with any member of the cast.

2013 brought profound loss to both institutions.  In July, about a week after his wedding, Giant Bomb’s Ryan Davis died.  Though the cause of death was never officially explained to the fans, it is thought he lost his long-term battle with sleep apnea.  He was 34.  Then, in last October, Aaron Hilden from DGR died after complications from diabetes.  He was also in his mid-30s.  Both of them died suddenly and it was a great shock to both communities.

In the intervening months, Giant Bomb bounced back.  Though Ryan was very much the “soul” of that podcast, the other members held strong and moved forward.  It took them a few weeks to find their footing, and it still isn’t the same as it used to be, but the podcast lives and is still great.  DGR, on the other hand, just recently posted its most recent (and likely final) podcast.  This was a trio that began in college.  It wasn’t a work relationship: these guys were best friends.  The podcast always worked best when firing on all three cylinders, and the loss of one is crippling.  This is further complicated by the fact that Hilden ran the show, including audio recording, production and editing.  The other two can only do so much to replicate what Hilden did for them.

Hearing their most recent podcast has reminded me of my feelings after hearing the news.  Sure, both of these guys were “just podcasters” for a hobby that many don’t partake in (though many do…).  But you can’t help but share in their loss.  I could compare it to when Cory Monteith from “Glee” died suddenly earlier this year and how millions took his loss, but I view it differently.  Monteith played a character on television and that character is all I knew of him.  That is to say, it’s easier to mourn “Finn Hudson” than it is Cory Monteith.  I’m personally just too separated from the real person.

But Ryan Davis and Aaron Hilden?  That was them.  They were real people.  And I “knew” their friends and colleagues.  I read the outpouring of e-mails, posts and tweets after they passed and it was clear just how much they affected the lives of those around them.  I may as well have been at the funeral of someone I actually knew.

These are two gentlemen I will (and already do) miss.  I never met them and likely never would have.  But they touched a lot of lives in a way that I don’t think either of them fully appreciated.

Rest in peace, guys.

My New Friend, The Chromecast

My new friend...

My new friend…

Last week, Google had a few announcements, mostly some hardware (Nexus 7) and software (Android 4.3) refreshes.  But the “…and one more thing…” from this particular session was a new device called the Google Chromecast.

In short, it is only slightly bigger than your typical USB memory stick, but instead of USB, it uses HDMI (the interface your cable box uses to connect to your television).  Instead of a memory stick, it’s a mini receiver that is capable of taking instruction from Android and iOS devices, along with the Google Chrome browser.  From your phone (or tablet), you can open up Netflix or YouTube, find the content you’re interested in, then click the “Cast” button to send that video feed to your television.  After that, the Chromecast maintains the connection and you can use your phone (or tablet) for whatever you want.  You can even leave the room, or the house, and the connection will be maintained.

To be fair, while this is a neat feature, it isn’t necessarily “revolutionary,” at least, so far as I’m concerned.  I mean, my PS3, my Wii and my toaster can play Netflix at this point.  Why’s this device so useful?

Hulu.

We use Hulu quite a bit to watch various shows, but it requires you watch it on a laptop or desktop.  Any web browser that’s built-in to a PS3 or Wii is blocked from displaying the content.  What’s worse is that Hulu actually has a TV-targeted solution in Hulu Plus, but for some crazy reason, the shows that you find on regular, web-based Hulu aren’t available on the paid Hulu Plus service.  They’ll tell you it’s because of content deals with producers who want to keep that content off televisions (unless you’re using cable to view it), but that’s increasingly becoming a ridiculous argument as more and more people cut the cord and focus on internet-only solutions.

Anyway, back to the Chromecast.  This thing allows you to take a Chrome browser tab and transfer it to the Chromecast.  This means that, so far as Hulu is concerned, you’re still using a bog-standard Chrome browser while you’re watching, and it doesn’t realize you’re using a television to do it.  Genius.

And it totally works.  You need a reasonably decent computer to do it (my Chromebook is capable, but needs to have video quality scaled down a bit), but it totally works.

Overall, the Chromecast has been reviewed quite positively, largely because it works pretty well (with a few quirks), but also because it’s cheaper than alternative solutions.  The device sells for $35, though I got in on a promotion (that lasted less than 24 hrs…) where each purchase got you 3 months of Netflix streaming, even for existing subscribers (a $24 value, bringing my cost down to $11).

Hopefully other Android apps will gain functionality (Google Music also works, but I don’t tend to listen to music through my TV very often…), but seriously, $11 (or even $35) is worth it to get Hulu onto my TV.  Brooke appreciates it as well, as we’ll have a newborn in a few months and watching our shows on my PC in the dining room isn’t the most comfortable of options.  Getting to sit on a couch in the living room is a much better solution.

It’s pretty cool and I’m glad it works.  I’m sure I’ll have more to report on later, but for now, if you have any interested in getting web-based content beamed to your television, this is arguably the most cost-effective option available).

Classic “Trek” vs New “Trek”

Who to choose, who to choose...

Who to choose, who to choose…

Prior to watching Star Trek Into Darkness last week (and loving it…), I checked out a few reviews and noted a common theme:

I couldn’t help feeling let down. Not because J.J. Abrams and his writers have ignored what “Star Trek” fans want. It’s that they’ve pandered to it to such a degree that it feels less like fan appreciation and more like base-covering pragmatism.  – Rob Thomas, Capital Times

Jettisoning the franchise’s optimistic, socially aware sci-fi, not to mention character development or a logical plot, Darkness turns out to be any Vulcan’s worst nightmare: Team America: World Police with Tribbles. — Graham Killeen, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Granted, these folks are in the minority, compared with what generally every other critic thinks is a wonderful movie (that, and many of those making this claim aren’t exactly “big name” national critics…).  But they get at a question that’s been asked of the recent movies since their inception:

“Is J.J. Abrams‘ ‘Star Trek’ still ‘Star Trek?’”

There are a lot of people complaining on the internet that these last two movies aren’t “Star Trek” enough and miss what made the franchise great: great story-telling, a sense of exploration and wonder, attention to morality and social justice, and a sense of hope for the future.  A “Wagon Train To The Stars,” if you will.  Their contention is that these last two movies have very little of that, instead focusing on huge action set-pieces, snappy dialog, and a willful ignorance of the things that made “Star Trek” popular in the first place.

To these people, I’d simply like to ask what Star Trek movies they’ve been watching?

By my count, only three of the movies (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and Star Trek: Insurrection) actually dealt with anything akin to social justice or political upheaval.  The other seven movies had a clear villain (or “thing,” in the case of Star Trek: The Motion Picture) that the crew of the Enterprise was fighting against.  And why is that?  Because in order to make a spectacular science fiction movie in the 21st Century that brings in plenty of movie-goers and actually turns a meaningful profit, you have to make it an action movie.  The actors they recruited for these last two movies are wonderful and play their parts well, but they aren’t cheap.  Paramount would never make their money back on the actors and relatively minor effects needed to make a modern science fiction film if they did a traditional, “classic,” movie where Kirk and Spock are transported back to the 1930s and have to let a woman die so that the United States enters WWII as history dictates.

What these reviewers, and others on the internet, are complaining about is movie “Star Trek” versus television “Star Trek,” and these are two separate things.  Even the movies that feature some kind of social commentary (Undiscovered Country and Insurrection) still have more action than they’ve got “classic ‘Trek’” elements.  Voyage Home is probably the only movie in the franchise that’s even close to aping the core of the television franchise: the combination of a new life form, environmental justice, and character drama, along with a few small action scenes.

These movies, Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, should be viewed in comparison with the other movies in the franchise, not the television show(s) that spawned their existence.  In the appropriate context, these movies are utterly spectacular, and among the best of the 12 films.

When J. J. Abrams starts making a Star Trek television series, then reviewers and The Internet can complain about the lack of Roddenberry-esque social commentary.  Unfortunately, the big budget blockbuster requires more “whiz bang” than the traditional Star Trek fan prefers.  Thus, that fan must wait for the next series to start, or should go back and watch the 5 series of TV shows over again to get their fix.

Science Fiction and Science Fact

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Brooke picked up “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” in e-format from the library a few weeks ago, and as it’s a book I’d heard of and had some interest in, I joined her in reading it. Overall, it was a fascinating tale of how a black woman named Henrietta Lacks in the American South of the early-1950s died of cervical cancer, but samples of her cancerous cells survived in a dish (now known as HeLa cells), paving the way for not only the modern technique of cell culture, but also the discoveries that would develop the polio vaccine, new cancer treatments, and unlock many secrets of genetics.

While the book covers the science in a comprehensive, yet very readable manner, it also tells the reader of what happened to Henrietta’s family in the aftermath of her death, and the fact that they not only had no knowledge of the fact that Henrietta’s cells were being used in research, but they also received no compensation whatsoever for the discoveries that came from it.  When the family eventually discovered what had been happening with HeLa cells over the previous 20 years (seriously…20 years after her death, the family found out…), they didn’t understand what was going on, partially because researchers didn’t take the time to explain it to them, but also because many of them never completed high school, let alone took a single biology class.

This passage jumped out at me:

Deborah realized these movies were fiction, but for her the line between sci-fi and reality had blurred years earlier, when her father got that first call saying Henrietta’s cells were still alive.  Deborah knew her mother’s cells had grown like the Blob until there were so many of them they could wrap around the Earth several times.  It sounded crazy, but it was true.

“You just never know,” Deborah said, fishing two more articles from the pile and handing them to me.  One was called HUMAN, PLANT CELLS FUSED: WALKING CARROTS NEXT?  The other was MAN-ANIMAL CELLS BRED IN LAB.  Both were about her mother’s cells, and neither was science fiction.

“I don’t know what they did,” Deborah said, “but it all sound like ‘Jurassic Park’ to me.”

This conversation took place in the early-2000s, though Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, had been reading articles like the ones mentioned for decades, especially in the early years before the media and society really could grasp the power and utility of cell culture.  Sure, researchers were making “hybrids,” but what exactly did that mean?  The articles were sensationalistic, rarely providing enough background information to explain the meaning behind what researchers were doing (i.e. not making “man-animals”…).

But a lot of it goes back to the lack of education.  The Lacks family simply could not understand what was happening with Henrietta’s cells because they barely had a concept of what a ‘cell’ was, let along the technologies and diseases HeLa cells could (or did) help cure.  Heck, I remember trying to explain my graduate work to my 90+ year old grandmother (who possibly never took a biology class, and even if she did, it was in the early-1930s…), and that was extremely difficult.  It’s not that she wasn’t intelligent: she just didn’t have the background knowledge to understand much of what I was telling her.

As scientists, I think many of us expect that society, as a whole, has a basic understanding of how the world around them functions, but I have to wonder if society understands less than we think.  We expect that people over the age of 50 have taken a biology class before, but forget that biology has come a long way since they took those classes in the 1970s (when cell culture was still in its infancy).  We further don’t recognize that many of our aging population (i.e. people older than 60) haven’t had a biology class since the 1960s or earlier, if they took a ‘biology class’ at all.  And these are the people that we’re marketing countless drugs to during the commercial breaks from the evening news.

We need to get better at recognizing that “science” moves faster than society’s understanding of it. Perhaps this is why researchers have a tough time getting the concepts of “global climate change,” “evolution” and “childhood vaccination” across to certain segments of the population.  If they had the scientific background (or the will to learn more on the subject from primary literature, rather than silly blogs like this one), perhaps our society could move forward on many fronts, whether environmental, sociological or spiritual.

Though it’s important for scientists to communicate more effectively, it’s also incumbent upon society to start listening.  Otherwise, we are all doomed to repeat the failures presented in the book.  It’s definitely worth a read.

Tech Update: Samsung Chromebook (2012)

Samsung Chromebook (2012)

Samsung Chromebook (2012)

So, I mentioned that Meg has something of a “fondness” for our Kindle Fire HD 8.9, mostly just for watching TV shows.  As a result, my tablet has been somewhat co-opted in favor of my toddler on most weekends, when I’d like to sit on the couch and catch up on my online reading from the previous few days.  Compound this with the fact that tablets don’t have keyboards, so when traveling, I don’t generally have anything I can type a lengthy e-mail with (unless I borrow a nearby computer, which is sometimes a viable option).

Now, I gave up laptops after my last one failed, mostly because I don’t really need one anymore (especially for gaming), and because they are made obsolete within a few short months, despite spending $1000 on a reasonably decent one that should comfortably last you a few years.  We’ve still got Brooke’s Dell Mini 10 netbook, but as it was somewhat underpowered the day we bought it nearly 4 years ago, it wasn’t my first choice of solutions.

Enter the Google Chromebook.  These are cheap, netbook-type laptops that don’t run Windows, but instead run a modified version of Gentoo Linux called “Chrome OS.”  Essentially, it’s an operating system that functions almost exclusively in a web browser.  Actually, the first iterations of the operating system were literally just the Google Chrome browser and nothing else: no file manager, no storage on the hard drive, no nothing.

The strategy behind Chrome OS and Chromebooks at large are to provide a low-cost solution to consumers to drive people closer and closer to “living in the cloud,” where they do their typing in Google Docs, they store their photos on Google+, they send their e-mail with Gmail, they use the Chrome browser, they play games in that browser, and they use Google Music to store and play their MP3s.

It’s the idea where just about everything they do is inside a web browser, and for many people, that’s just fine.  A lot of people buy a nice laptop and only use it to check Facebook and Pinterest, never needing to install heavy photo editing software, play graphics-intensive games, or run AutoCAD.  They may have the occasional document to write, but don’t need macros or anything more complicated than double-spacing and bold text.

And for these people, a Chromebook is just fine.  Best of all, as it’s a browser-running-on-Linux, it’s virtually virus immune and all updates come down automatically in the background.  As it runs Chrome, if you take advantage of its Cloud Sync functionality, everything gets synced between computers and browsers, so if you lose or break your Chromebook, you just log in to a new one and it’s set up identically to your old one.

The Samsung Chromebook that I picked up a few weeks ago has a 11.6″ screen, a full-size keyboard, a few USB ports, an SD card port, and HDMI out (if you wanted to have an external monitor or send it to your television).  The difference is that it runs an ARM-based processor (as opposed to an Intel or AMD processor like your PC or Mac has), which is similar to the processors running your cell phones.  This particular Chromebook has a 16 GB SSD, as well.  The combination of the SSD and ARM chip means there are zero fans in the device, allowing it to be crazy thin, crazy quiet, and crazy efficient (about 6.5 hrs of battery life).

And the price for this thing?  $250.  To be fair, I got it cheaper than that, but I think it’s worth the $250 asking price.

The big key is to think about what you need/want a laptop for.  This thing doesn’t run Windows, so if you want to use Microsoft Word, you’re out of luck.  If you want to install Adobe Photoshop, you’re out of luck.  If you want to install Steam and a copy of Age of Empires II, you’re out of luck.  But, if you live mostly in a browser for most things you do and you’re already tightly integrated with Google services (i.e. you use Android smartphones, like we do), then it makes perfect sense and serves as a great laptop.  I’m pretty happy with it thus far, and have had a good time finding alternatives to programs I use routinely that function within a web browser.  For example, Pixlr is a photo editing tool based on The Gimp that has many of the same functions of Photoshop.  Let that sink in: a Photoshop-capable alternative running in a web browser.  Nuts.

So, overall, I’m a big fan so far.  It isn’t perfect, but for the most part, it does all that I need it to and then some.  It’s well worth it if you don’t need anything “over-capable” and you do most things in a web browser.