Life & much, much more

End of 2012

Aha, it’s the end of 2012. Here’s a recap of the highlights of the year.

  • Firstly, I’ve finished my second year of architectural education at the University of Sydney. This has led to me forming some more baked opinions about the architecture industry.
  • I am now searching for architecture jobs and will likely begin work early 2013.
  • My design for of a museum of pacific art was selected as part of the 2012 university architecture catalogue.
  • There was the very excellent “Game of Homes” architecture revue, at which I acted as musical director and were reviewed as best revue band.
  • I am now a Gentoo developer
  • I have had much fun modeling and 3D printing various forest animals
  • I have developed a foundation to build web applications out of: a mix between HTML5 boilerplate, Kohana, Mustache, various drivers, and a skeleton DCI setup.
  • I have begun WIPUP2013: rebuilding WIPUP from the ground up with an improved and more maintainable backend, improved interface, and multiple device support.
  • A lot of fun work setting up a training scheme, dev infrastructure and QA standards with a web development company.
  • Early in the year: a couple months learning conversational Mandarin in Shanghai
  • A couple months enjoying Malaysia
  • Learning to cook a series of Malaysian dishes :) Yum!

Merry Christmas and a Happy new year, everyone!

Life & much, much more

Testdriving Skydrive

For those unfamiliar with Microsoft’s answer to cloud storage, [Microsoft Windows Live] SkyDrive offers a website accessible online file manager for free. When I first tested Skydrive many years back, it only offered 5GB storage and had a clunky interface that was a horror to work with.

Imagine my reaction when I heard the bozos who work at the University of Sydney’s excuse of an IT department announced that they were abandoning a personal user folder on the  network and replacing it with a SkyDrive account.

Admittedly after brushing up with SkyDrive’s latest updates, featuring a HTML 5 non-uncanny interface along with 100MB per file with a total size of 25GB per person, my interest in trying out the service was rekindled. They apparently also updated photo sharing and manipulation technologies as well as synchronisation with MS Office. Neither feature of which I particularly need or will use, but a nice touch nonetheless that shows at least some departments in Microsoft care about their products.

Apart from playing with it sporadically, this week I had the fortune (that’s right, I wouldn’t say misfortune) to use it within my average work environment, ie. working with graphics and diagrams and scanned images. My other average work environment involves programming, for which anything other than a vcs repository with a local LAMP setup is inappropriate, but that’s something else entirely.

The Good

When working within a relatively small group for a small design project, SkyDrive is great for collaboration. Not only does it solve the issue of always shifting workstations and having to transfer over resources or source material, SkyDrive acts as a replacement for a Dropbox setup. By this I mean that when SkyDrive is operating under an institution, I can very easily tell it to share a directory with 5 of my friends working on the same project as I am, or otherwise interested in my work.

Along with a drag n’ drop interface, it makes it easy to copy over whatever has changed just by looking at the last modified dates and selected the top X number of entries.

SkyDrive is also quick. It doesn’t dally around like other uploaders and gets straight to the point of dumping your files online just like Dropbox does.

The Bad

Unfortunately it’s also completely inappropriate for my uses. The average design save file can very easily exceed the 100MB per file limit, and even when it doesn’t, having to download a ~50MB file, especially when the connection is spotty, is a pain, and can cost you several hours of productive work, or worse, lose a client.

SkyDrive also doesn’t support incremental updating, which I guess is asking too much, but since people have already been spoilt by Dropbox, which does something alike that, I don’t see why I can’t grumble about it.

Brief Conclusion

Apart from not being useful for my usecase I really cannot find much to critique about SkyDrive. Especially when I rarely see other people making use of Cloud solutions other than Dropbox I’m quite surprised not more people are using SkyDrive. With upcoming integration with Windows 8 (of which I have mixed reactions to) and up to 2GB file transfers, I’d say Kudos, MS. Kudos.

Uncategorized

Reviewing the statistics for WIPUP 27.06.10a.

I decided to delay the statistics-review post for WIPUP 27.06.10a because a recent update to the dashboard now shows view statistics on a daily basis instead of a weekly basis – the results were quite surprising:

As you can see WIPUP is clearly one of our most active projects, with quite a decent kudos:subscriptions:updates ratio compared to the others. However when looking at the activity, we notice something rather interesting – the increase in views is not a sustained increase. It’s a spike whenever there is an update. Looking at my personal WIPSpace we can attribute the initial spike up to almost 200 to the 27.06.10a release itself. The very next day, with no updates, views returned to a pathetic zero.

The even larger spike was quite an oddity. On the 1st of June, one of my less relevant posts (about cooking) was aggregated onto Planet Larry, which sort of explains it (despite a 1 day time lag occuring before the spike) – but further investigation shows that my update about buying the C++ Qt book received a uniqely larger amount of views. I conclude that where the Planet Larry aggregation helped spark some interest, another equally important factor to the spike was that planet readers decided to read what else was on the blog, which was a post which linked to the programming book update – which was obviously a lot more relevant. All the same, very interesting stuff.

An obvious reason behind the non-sustained views is that WIPUP is largly an unknown entity on the web. Hopefully with more updates (which will come!) I can change this behavior into a steady stream.

In relevant news, the upcoming beta of WIPUP is making rapid progress and should be quite a sweet release.

Uncategorized

Ubuntu 10.04 LTS (Lucid Lynx) – packed with goodies.

Just because I use Gentoo doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a little Just Work ™ once in a while, and from what they’d like people to believe, Ubuntu apparently does just that. You’d be a fool to argue that Ubuntu doesn’t play a vital part of the Linux ecosphere, and so despite my customiserish nature I’ve been watching that release date for quite some time and now that their latest version is out I couldn’t resist giving it a spin. Of course it helped that a family member wanted a dumb-proof Linux on their computer.

The main reason I was excited to try this release was due to their rebranding effort. Though a KDE-user I was excited to see how they had cleaned the murk-murk that you normally associate with Ubuntu’s default GNOME.

Download, burn, boot (a nice, fast boot!), and 20 minutes later I had a perfectly working Acer Aspire 4736Z running with Lucid Lynx. Sound, resolution, internet (including wireless!), webcam, and pretty much all my peripherals working out of the box. Well done. Kudos to the fact that I didn’t actually install it, but left it to my rather technologically illiterate mum.

Before going into the setup, the first thing anybody notices is the purple and orange highlighted colourscheme adopted by Canonical. It’s sharp and clean in a very distinct way. I have to admit that initially, I really quite liked the design (including that wallpaper somewhat). It had a sense of class the separated it from the age-old widget-like borders of other GNOME themes. Better yet, it did this whilst maintaining that characteristic Gnomish feel which I can’t really describe (you know, thick padding and such). However this doesn’t mean it’s good – on the contrary, GNOME’s bulkish plop of an interface lacks sleekness and eats up screenspace with excessive padding, large borders and ridiculously spaced widgets – both vertically and horizontally. It’s a mess. Upstream’s fault, true, but the large font size and the widget theme doesn’t make it any better.

What really contributed to the feel (in my opinion) was really in the monochromatic icons used. That was probably the sole cause of class other than the dropshadows on panels and slight compiz-integrated effects. The widget set wasn’t anything special, but the consistent rounded feel really contributed to the whole “smooth” look of the desktop.

However the polish falls short when it comes to the colours used in the widgets itself and icons. The widgets sport a hazy purplish brown throughout the entire interface, which really makes myself appreciate the clarity and brightness of my KDE desktop. In hindsight I suppose it was a way to prevent the harsh contrast that would otherwise exist when the dark toolbar and bright window background were combined, but all the same I think it could be improved. Radiance is lighter yes, but looks rather sickly pale.

The orange sported by progress loading bars and tinted across many icons (such as the folder icon and the close window button) is disgusting. It’s really terrible. Orange works upon purple well as a striking and clearly defined edge, but as a hazy blur (such as seen in a small area in the top of their wallpaper) it is a recipe for fail. Especially as I suspect the hue of orange used in icons was not part of their branding hue.

When using it for some time, I find that two things either will make you hate or love it – the size of the font and the default Ambiance theme. The size of the font by default is a shocking size 10. It’s large. It’s bulky. The rendering is decent but that doesn’t give it excuse to fill up the screen in a non-professional looking manner. I would’ve preferred size 8, but apparently dear mum who was using it wanted it changed back to 10. Getting older, eh, Shuttleworth? The Ambiance theme though on its outlook is rather nice may start irking you after a while having to adjust to the contrast between the light and dark. Navigating menus starts becoming painful and even though the padding helps, it’s not enough. Points for originality but no kudos from me there. I think a note should be said about default having the buttons on the left – it didn’t really affect me (I use them on the left anyways) and my mum (illiterate) but I guess legacy Windows folks might rant about their muscle memory.

The social integration is very neatly done. I had to watch over her setting up email and chats but it was surprisingly straightforward. Facebook, GTalk, MSN and email were nicely tucked into Ubuntu’s stylish monochrome status icons on the top right. Very well done. Recognisable, quick to pick up for beginners, and no need to wonder what the hell “Evolution” is and that it’d be under Applications -> Internet if you’re the sort of illiterate who believes GMail is the only way messages are sent online. The status editor is wonderful. I can’t help but really feel quite jealous of this whole status area, even though KDE is meant to be the “social desktop”. What a load of tosh. Thank goodness some work is being put into the systray for KDE SC 4.5.

Notifications are neat. Not as informing as I’d like them to be, but definitely better than the default GNOME notifications. The hover blur is a neat trick, and the dark background fits the rest of the tooltips and information providing bubbles.

Moving on to the default set of applications, I can’t complain. Removing The GIMP was a good choice IMHO, and the default is enough to give beginners a taste before they poke around in the software center – and on the topic of software, I must say it’s great how simple it is to install codecs, plugins and other software for beginners. Not exactly my cup of tea and incomparable to portage, but it’s definitely user-friendly and easy to start with.

On the whole, a (net) great release. Here’s to hoping that they extend this branding throughout the rest of their stuff (and please, clean up that disgusting website design they have!). For more information on branding I’d recommend this blog post for those interested – especially in the site design.

Note: in this review I’ve focused on their default look as well as their first impressions. Obviously everything is themeable but the point is that if Canonical is aiming to strike a certain brand with their identity plan, this is the stuff that’s going to count, whether or not you can customise it later. Of course, Ubuntu is not for everyone (me included, obviously, as a Gentoo user) so I’ve tried to look at things from their supposed audience’s view.

Kudos +1.

Uncategorized

Site review: BestWindowsMobileApps

This is a sponsored review by the owner of the website but all opinions are that of my own.

Windows Mobile 6.5.3 and below is widely regarded by many tech fads as a to-be-deprecated technology in favour of other smartphone OSes and possibly the upcoming Windows Mobile 7 OS, revealed just over a week ago. However much of the hidden credit behind the WM 6.x series lies in its ability to tweak and adjust the OS to such an amazing extent not really associated with Microsoft – all of these are found in 3rd party applications scattered around the internet that it takes such a long time to monitor the upcoming applications and find reliable ones. This gives the false impression that the system is underpowered. It wasn’t until almost a year ago that Microsoft released the Windows Marketplace, the equivalent of Apple’s App Store in order to solve this problem, but it’s a developer-initiative process to distribute using this system, and so many of the gems still remain hidden.

Those who have gone app-hunting would be familiar with sites such as freewarepocketpc, wm6software, pocketgear and the ever-so-reliable XDA-Developers forums. However we have a new kid on the block, BestWindowsMobileApps.com.

The site at first glance runs on WordPress with an aesthetic design that leaves little to be desired. This WordPress setup has all of the necessary plugins and additions which make the site appropriate to its purpose, including a featured application section, random apps, latest apps, social network sharing, related links (quite inaccurately labeled as a blog roll in our opinion), and the compulsory commenting system. It communicates its purpose extremely clearly and despite a seemingly random blank space on each sub-page near the header (probably for advertisements in the future), it looks extremely credible and up to date, which is a vital impression for such a site.

The site gives an unbiased review of applications submitted by developers and rates them on what I believe to be rather well-chosen sub categories: user interface, features, ease of use, and re-use value (if the app is a one-time use-and-forget or not), and for games graphics and sound ratings are also provided. Each of these are given a half-star rating out of 5 of which each rating is given a clear definition in their about page – 1 star for a application that wasn’t even worth the review and 5 stars for the perfect application that deserves recommendation to all WM users.

The site is two-tiered, splitting applications into two main categories, "Applications" and "Games", then further narrowing down the choice to your regular list of sub-categories such as communication, entertainment, lifestyle, media, etc. Although most of these portal sites have these categories this site is different in that it is completely centered around them instead of offering a more random browsing experience like others. Unfortunately there seems to be some navigation duplication in the main menu, such as Apps takes you to the same place as Categories -> App Store does, or we seem to have an unneeded single subcategory under Tools being Utilities, or that the supposedly macro-category of "games" is seen again inside Categories -> App Store, etc. Similarly we were shown this link to what seems like a "Games category" description page, but I haven’t been able to find a way to navigate to that page on the site. Perhaps because that page seems unfinished (some categories are not annotated) but this suggests a few fundamental navigation problems. This may serve to confuse newcomers but is a relatively easy problem to fix and on the whole provides a very instinctive navigational sitemap.

The list of applications is just as aesthetically pleasing as the rest of the site. It provides a quick snapshot of the name of the application, a dedicated icon (instead of other sites which rather badly autogenerate thumbnails) and a blurb. Although a little too much emphasis is placed on the date and reviewer than we’d like, we suppose it matches the feel of the site. Given that a one-liner summary of the app’s function is appended to its title it makes it really easy to find what you’re looking for.

An application’s review page does suffer from some visual glitches here and there that detract from the previous professional impression of the site. Some layout ideas could be rethought, such as placing the tags, post author and date and a rather large box with minimal information at the top instead of launching right into the review. However the review itself is presented in well-formatted narrative blog format not unlike this post and has plenty of app screenshots showing the app in action. It walks through the beginning impression, tours the features, and provides a consice summary to wrap up. The writing style is easy to understand and well-structured. Consistent throughout all reviews are a bullet pointed pros, cons and a possible improvements section at the end, your version number and price, the beforementioned star ranking system and an overall rating. A complementary link to the developer’s site is provided as well as a link to their sister site to download the product. The rest is taken up by social networking and comments which unlike most other review sites contribute quite intelligibly to the review.

Developers can submit their apps for review on quite ethical terms including unbiased reviews and understandable property rights. It’s a simple enough process and very appropriate.

Overall the site is quite polished with a few visual presentation quirks to work out. Some reviews are a little short (especially those with low rankings) but seem to communicate the message effectively enough. The duplicated navigation may be confusing, as well as some category structures needing to be rethought (for example, what is the "XDA dev" category?). The site is still quite immature in terms of content quantity (we’re predicting about 100 reviews, and we did notice some overlap in categories, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) but from what exists, it’s some good quality reading for those on the hunt for the perfect application set. I must say I didn’t set my sights high given the existing cobbled and maze-worthy app portal sites but this one has potential.

Uncategorized

Book recommendation: Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

Being of the current generation, I wasn’t around in the 1950s when Isaac Asimov created the Foundation Trilogy – namely three books: Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. Isaac Asimov is one of those pioneers in the sci-fi genre and for good reason too as I learned later. Being a passive book reader, when recommended this original trilogy I downloaded the ebook and dumped it on my phone to read “once in a while”.

It was a good book. No – all three were good. That’s why I’m recommending it to those who haven’t yet picked up on this and are looking for a good read.

The storyline begins when the galaxy is united through a single Galactic Empire, and Hari Seldon, a psychohistorian (aka sociologist) predicts the downfall due to stalls in technological progress, breakdowns in control and concentration of administration – as a result 30,000 proceeding years of individual barbarism between worlds until a second empire may rise. He creates a plan based on the probabilities of social and economic trends of quadrillions of people which may be represented statistically – and hence “map” out the future to create the optimal environment upon which a second empire will rise within 1,000 years instead of the originally projected 30,000.

This plan is that of the Foundation. A single group of scientists on the periphery of the galaxy with the supposed single purpose of documenting all scientific knowledge. A series of crises face them, all foreseen by Seldon, and … well, the story goes on from there to develop into something quite extraordinary.

Plot: 5/5, Characters: 5/5, Humour: 0/5 (no, it isn’t exactly your satirical Hitchhiker’s Guide), Readability: 5/5, Overall: 5/5

Well, if that sparked your interest you could pick up a copy in your local library, get an ebook, or request my personally converted plaintext copy.

As a side note, I am here recommending the original Foundation Trilogy, which are those three books mentioned above. The original trilogy has been extended into a series, such as Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth, but I haven’t read those yet – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t good.

Uncategorized

Sodexo – food for the masses.

Sodexo (formerly Sodexho Alliance) is a French multinational corporation, one of the largest food services and facilities management companies in the world, with 355,000 employees, representing 130 nationalities, present on 30,600 sites in 80 countries. For fiscal year 2008 (ending August 2008) revenues reached 13.6 billion euros, with a market capitalization of 5.6 billion euros.

That’s what Wikipedia has to say on the subject, though UrbanDictionary sings a slightly different tune.

1. adj. Extremely bad tasting, nearly to the point of torture.

2. adj. A state of extreme illness caused by low-quality cafeteria food; That pile of steaming shit I just ate tasted almost as bad as a Sodexo; I feel really Sodexo; I think I’m going to puke and have diarrhea at the same time.

Of course, the actual definition is disputed on UrbanDictionary and variants include “greasy unidentifiable shit” and “Sodexo is gayness”.

Unfortunately our school is plagued by Sodexo. A good couple years back they likely popped a couple pictures of an “ideal” school canteen for proper international students for the headmaster to ogle at as compared to the localised package we were receiving at the time. During the summer break the entire canteen (both of them) got a merciless rework to prove that stereotypical Malaysian inefficiency is nothing compared to Sodexo queues.

I’ve written about Sodexo before rather briefly but this picture deserves to be repeated as 1000-word says-it-all introduction to, what exactly, my good sir, is Sodexo?

That’s a plate of “butter and spaghetti”. I do believe this is evidence for the “greasy unidentifiable shit” mentioned previously. By unidentifiable I mean that quite literally – for the staff themselves don’t know what’s going on your plates. I remember a conversation I overheard from my friend:

Friend: What’s this dish?

Staff: Hmmmm, not sure.

Friend: It looks like pumpkin, but the ends look like meat, I’m vegetarian.

Staff: I think it’s either pumpkin, or it could be potato. I think there might’ve been some meat put into it, not sure.

… and no, that wasn’t exaggerated. Look at how they name their dishes:

and another to reiterate my point:

On Monday just this week I decided to have “fried fish”. On Tuesday I was served an almost identical dish except that the fish was considerably softer and no longer crispy. It had miraculously been rebranded as “sweet and sour fish” and there was some gloup to accompany it. On Wednesday I was again presented with a dish that suspiciously looked as though it was two days old and yet again relabeled as “fish with lemon sauce”. The lemon sauce looked identical in all respects to the gloup served the day before with the exception of several deformed lemons dunked in a fashion that would make a girl’s throw look good.

That’s just the woes to do with food quality – or rather lack of it. Prices fluctuate worse than the stock market and several factors including time of day, the colour of your plate, and how happy the cashier is feeling will determine how much you’ll have to dish out. The prices tend to peak on Thursdays, presumably when they realise they aren’t going to meet their sales figures for the week.

Of course, all of this is old news. Sodexo has a reputation for being rather terrible, both on the outside and the inside. Their controversies on working conditions and hygiene leaves expectations as good as a glint of hope in the distant horizon – or at least until their contract expires. At the end of last year during an assembly the headmaster announced the results of a survey – the best and worst things about the school. Sodexo achieved the honorary title of “the worst thing in the school” – and accordingly received a standing ovation of a good 500 or so students for it.

Please excuse me, I have to go take a Sodexo poop.

Uncategorized

Google Wave Review

I have a Google Wave account. I’ve had it for a couple weeks now and have had time to familiarise myself with it enough to write a review.

In a nutshell, Google Wave is a pimped combination of email, instant messaging, and live document collaboration. It tries to combine these three functions into an interface that is easily accessible on the web. I think it’s best to split my review into these respective parts.

First I will talk about its function as email. If there’s something I’m really against, it’s unnecessary function duplication. I would like to stress my use of the word “unnecessary” here, because function duplication as an innovation strategy is actually incredibly good. Google wave is the perfect example of “unnecessary” function duplication for its use as email. It provides no extra benefit at the moment. It is simply what GMail is except inside a smaller window and formatted like a chatlog. But is it so bad? Now there are still a very limited number of bots you can use (small extensions that allow you to insert interactive “widgets” or manipulate the conversation in some way) but as time passes, I predict the number of bots will increase, and thus really make Google Wave’s use in email very, very different. One example is the “yes, no” widget, which allows anybody in the conversation to place themselves in the “yes”, “no” or “maybe” category – useful when organising an event.

Am I willing as a customer to give up my email for Wave? No. In the future? Maybe.

Instant messaging – it’s absolutely terrible. I’ve seen the Windows Live Messenger program do better. Inconvenient, clunky, extremely distracting (real time typing!), and gets confusing real fast. With shortcuts it’s barely manageable, but without, it’s a lost cause. Once you get more than 10 people in a single conversation (even with 5 people it’s absolutely terrible) you’d wish IRC were more mainstream.

Live document collaboration – admittedly I haven’t tested this as extensively as the previous ones but personally I wouldn’t go near Wave’s “live collaboration” with a 10 foot pole. Allow me to use an analogy here – let’s say you were a designer. A digital graphics designer. I can guarantee you that anybody doing this as a profession will not touch the computer unless they have a superbly clear idea of what they want in their head. Even if this were the case, I can again guarantee that discussions with other designers about their ideas in any collaborative environment or even with themselves would be done with their hands, a writing utensil and something to make marks on. Like “paper and pencil”, you know? It’s this process that Google is trying to digitize. Admittedly sometimes technology helps – but for things like these nothing beats face to face, or at least a good conversation over the phone.

Ok – but what about the application itself? It’s quite stable on my Firefox 3.5.something on Gentoo amd64. QtWebkit doesn’t display it properly (KHTML? Not a chance). It’s speedy up until I try to use the playback feature on a conversation, and I’ve been in a Wave with over 100 people with … well, yes, a lot of lag, but it displays and still can be used if you’re a very patient person. Google Wave seems to be crossing the uncanny valley in a way I haven’t seen before – there is a form of “window management”, including docking, minimising, maximising and restoring. There are very many desktop-like effects, such as their interesting implementation of a scrollbar (think touchscreen device) – and many toolbars littered here and there, but overall it puts me off more than attracts.

However an important point to notice is that Google Wave is still not much more than a poorly implemented clone of what the desktop world has refined over the years. The web was designed as a standardised freeform canvas to present information, which is why websites are not desktop applications and desktop applications are websites. Scrollbars? Drag and drop? Right click? I’m sorry – when was the last time you used a proper application? Admittedly Google Wave is composed of three main areas as introduced through their loooooong video – one of them is to do with an API. This obviously means that there’s nothing preventing a future implementation of a Wave Client, but until then, Google Wave shall continue to receive my polite disgust.

Uncategorized

ADOM: Game review.

I’m not a gamer. I don’t mind playing games, they’re fun. However I don’t see any sense in wasting a good majority of my day playing a game. Games attract me because of the intellect and flexibility within them, not so much the advance in graphics. Replay-value is probably what I weigh as most important for a game.

A good while back I was – I admit – searching for a game for my computer. As I was on Linux, the game had to be 1) Linux-compatible, 2) Free, and 3) Not lag. A quick public question in IRC came up with the answer: ADOM – Ancient Dungeons of Mystery.

It’s a command-line run game – a roguelike. For those unaffiliated with this genre a picture speaks a thousand words:

adom

Ok – it already looks ancient. As you might’ve guessed, it’s all text based, and you move about just like you would in any modern day RPG. The story revolves around you as a young explorer trying to discover the source of some evil thing called chaos that is destroying your world. You complete quests and learn through experimentation how to survive in this magical and mysterious world.

Being text-based, it allows me to play it when SSH’ed in remotely. This is a very ideal scenario for people who don’t do gaming seriously like me. It also helps that you can pretty much stop playing anytime and resume later exactly where you were without fear of the consequences.

What makes it fun is the flexibility and complexity of the game. There are a lot of things you can do – there are even several ways of winning. For example, I can attack a monster by throwing my hat at it – it probably won’t be very effective, but you get the idea. Or I could kill some rats and eat their corpses – or if there was a cat nearby I could feed it some rat corpses and it might become my pet. There are spells, races, classes, potions, herbs, weapons, shields, clothing, amulets, gods, quests, pets, shops, skills, talents, curses, special effects – you get the idea: it’s detailed. You can do a lot of stuff – and stuff you do affects stuff that happens to you. Heck, locations are randomly generated every single time you play the game. If that’s not awesome replayability, I don’t know what is. ADOM’s Wikipedia entry says a lot more about it than I can mention in this post.

Don’t be fooled by the hideous graphics – or lack of graphics. It’s a challenging and interesting gaming experience. I still haven’t won it – not even come close. True I’ve only played it 20 times or so (savefiles are limited to one per character, and once dead, that’s it. No saves), but yes, it’s challenging. You actually have to reason once in a while.

Just because it’s a console-based game doesn’t mean it doesn’t play nice with Windows or Macs. If you’re looking for an interesting gaming experience to try out next weekend I would recommend ADOM. Just a note: it takes time to learn, and it’s hard – don’t be discouraged if you keep on dying.

Uncategorized

Windows Mobile 6.5 Review

You know that nervous feeling you get just before you install Linux for the first time? Especially if you’re installing something like Gentoo – all that weird scrolling of funny commands scream “no more warranty for you“? It’s quite the same when you flash your first ROM – the equivalent of installing an OS on your phone.

I own a Windows Mobile phone. I would be lying to say that my general dislike of Windows extends to the Mobile version – it is a very capable operating system, and more importantly, very flexible. I would probably go so far to say that it’s better than all of the alternatives in that market (which is definitely more than 2). I would also like to spend an article discussing what I believe are the best/vital application for it, but I’ll save that for later.

If you buy any Windows Mobile powered phone nowadays, it’ll probably come preloaded with Windows Mobile 6. However two newer version do exist (for beta-testing): 6.1 and 6.5 – the latter being the latest, and apparently a huge improvement over 6.1. When 6.1 came out, I instantly looked for a way to upgrade, new features are always attractive. I found a lovely community by the name of XDA-Developers – basically a bunch of smartphone geeks. However most of them said that especially for my phone model, it would lag and probably be as stable as Vista.

6.5 has been out for a while, and that has allowed plenty of ROMs to mature and undergo vigorous testing by others. ROMs are basically the equivalent of Linux Distributions – they come with their own style, preloaded applications, system modifications, and so on. I picked a ROM that I thought looked good (mainly because it sticks to the defaults – I don’t like all the unwanted bulk) and flashed it (on a Windows computer – there is a way to flash it on Linux but I didn’t want to risk “bricking” the phone.)

Right, that was a long introduction, let’s get to the review!

wmreview1

The today, or home screen, has a brand-spanking new interface named Titanium. The home screen is one of the vital areas of the phone – allowing you quick access to pretty much anything you need. It now looks downright dashing and is themeable. It provides access to S(M)MSes, phone records, favourite contacts, weather, email, and has plugins to extend its functionality. It’s a definitely improvement and all this time when WM has been playing catch-up on Apple’s “home” screen, this is where its overtaken Apple.

It makes full use of both vertical scrolling (to choose between plugins) and horizontal scrolling (for more information within plugins). Shown in the example above are two plugins, the “clock”, which is where it is left at for most of the time, and the media plugin, which allows you to control your music playing (even choose other songs, pause, play) right from the home screen. Other examples (not pictured) are the calendar, which allows you to flick through your upcoming appointments within the next two days, and the pictures which allows you to browse your pictures. Etc. Wonderful stuff.

Even on my HTC Hermes, probably not known now for its processing power, it runs quite smoothly and only lags when I am running several programs on the side. This is acceptable I guess.

wmreview2

The lock screen has also been improved. It follows the same “sliding” action as the iPhone but the slider begins at the middle – nifty if you prefer to hold it with your left hand or your right. A definite plus is that it shows useful information on the lock screen. Shown here it is displaying an upcoming appointment, but it also shows SMSes, missed calls, etc.

wmreview3

The start menu has been replaced to a rather beehive-ish layout. Microsoft claims it improves usability – other than being bigger and more touch-friendly than the previous menu, I don’t personally see any difference to the classical grid layout – if anything, its more confusing. At least its aesthetic and overlays upon your background image (note I am using one of the defaults). It’s not very configurable at the moment and you’ll have to scroll a bit if you have a lot of applications, but this could be liable to change in the future.

Please also note that in the screenshot above the ROM I used modified it so that it shows 4 columns instead of the default 3. This is an improvement but keep in mind that other releases might not feature the same 4 column layout.

wmreview4

The next up is what I believe is the biggest improvement: every single menu or scrollable frame has been given thicker padding and a kinetic scroller. The scrollbars themselves have been made slightly bigger, but more importantly you can see that it’s well spaced, finger-friendly, and of course, you can flick through it easily. Shown in the picture is the “browse files” and a menu of the browse files. It does look a tad bit fat in the picture, but all-in-all I don’t see how I did without it in the past.

wmreview5

Finally I am going to highlight some of the in-house application upgrades. First is the messages application, which deals with SMSes, Emails, etc. Messages are now shown in a conversation view – true, this is an old feature with other smartphones, but a godsend for Windows Mobile users. Internet Explorer has also been revamped – and new design almost completely ripped off Opera Mobile. Buttons hide themselves automatically to give maximum screen estate when surfing, and a mini-page map shows when you scroll around the webpage – with of course kinetic scrolling. Tabs are also a huge plus. However my personal experience hasn’t been that great as it does seem to lag quite a bit – so I will be sticking to Opera Mobile for the moment.

I should also mention that around here and there several small usability tweaks have been made and though screenshots cannot capture these effectively they really add to the “polish” Windows seems to be doing on their beta in preparation for the upcoming Windows Mobile 7.

Finally, this is also version 6.5 – Windows seems to be hard at work and making lots of improvements – and already other reviews on later versions show an interesting new improvement on the softkeys at the bottom. I’m looking forward to where this is going, and definitely think Windows Mobile 7 will turn out to be a success – at least if their competitors don’t make them play catch up again.

Uncategorized

Windows 7 Review

To those who have been keeping up with all the Windows 7 buzz, this post will seem very “behind the times”. Well, I don’t care :) To those who are just casual browsers of the thinkMoult blog, this might interest you. (Well, it was also in my drafts folder for a long time, and I decided to finish it off)

Let’s start off by saying I do not hate Microsoft with a vengeance. True, I do think their Windows operating system is a flop, but let’s not have that impression taint the new Windows 7, eh? For the more technically inclined, I ran Windows 7 build 7000 – amd64, on a VirtualBox. The actual OS underneath was Gentoo Linux. Let’s take a look at what we see first (after it’s all installed):

windows7_bootup

Well, the install process was…slow. I had to leave it overnight. (started the install at about 12:00AM), and things has a knack of staying at 0%. Choosing the date and time seemed a bit bugged, as I could change the time, but not the date (which was wrong). Of course, the slow install could’ve been because I was running it on a virtual box. (Compared to the Ubuntu install, the Ubuntu was faster, and more user friendly).

The start up screen was nice, and had a flashy little animation showing the Windows logo glowing somewhat. The logon was pretty dumbass proof (type. in. password), and up there you see the screen it shows when you log in. I think there was something wrong because I expected compositing of some sort, but I didn’t get any. So as you can see, the taskbar there is pretty darn opaque. This also meant I didn’t get a lot of the eyecandy, including the well-publisized show desktop effect (which I don’t see what the hype is about anyway).

The taskbar, as you can see, is the most obvious change. The first thought that came across my mind was “This looks like KDE 3.x”. In case you don’t know, KDE is a user interface for Linux, and the 3.x version is … old :) I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying Windows has stolen an old idea of Linux. Apparently each application now only shows as a huge icon on your taskbar. At the same time, you have quicklaunch icons which look pretty much identical. I found it a bit disconcerting at first, but to be honest it wasn’t hard to confuse against. However, this concept also made each application have to group, and since I tend to run quite a lot of applications (especially because Windows doesn’t have any concept of multiple desktops – gosh they are slow) this new task bar would personally act as a cripple to my workflow. It would make it hard to manage a lot of open windows. Especially because it doesn’t show the names of the windows, which can show a lot of useful information (eg: file browser – which folder you are in, web browser – the website you’re on, email client- which folder, irc- which channel, etc). Of course, I’m sure there is a legacy option, but I believe this change was for the worse. The ratio of the size of things on the taskbar to the area of the taskbar seem very uneven, and so I also find that there is a lot of space wasted – which is a sign of bad design. Of course, some times these can have good aesthetic effects, but not in this case (in my opinion).

windows_1

When initally poking around, I was quite impressed with the changes. As you can see, the calculator has been beefed up (small things do count), you can see the grouping in the taskbar, some desktop widgets, and a theme that has been applied. When poking around a bit more, I found that the experience got worse and worse. My initial reaction to the possibility of the themeing support (in the control panel – more about that later) was “finally!”, but apparently all it does is change your wallpaper and your clock design. Ooooh. Innovation. What a anticlimax. The grouping likes to split the tabs in internet explorer into separate items. What a waste of tabs in the first place if you’re going to treat them like separate applications in your task bar. I was also quite disappointed with the packaged set of desktop widgets – hardly any of them would be actually practically useful for me.

windows_2

Next up was IE. They apparently did upgrades. And yes they did. It looks…bulkier than ever. The menus and such take up about 300 pixels, if not more. The bookmark support is pathetic, the url bar doesn’t guess well, the new compatibility mode is well… hell for web designers, as now we’ve got even more stuff to try and insert hacks for, the refresh and stop buttons are put… well, at the opposite end of the interface. This is quite daft to be honest. THe search uses live search which is next to useless, and it still likes to block my downloads randomly. The zoom has improved though, and I have heard the speed has increased, but since I use TMNet as my ISP, this is uncertain. If you look on the taskbar, you can also see that  a little extra line has appeared next to the IE icon, this shows I have more than one tab open. This is useful. However treating tabs as separate applications like I mentioned before, is not.

windows_3

Finally we look at the start menu and the control panel. The conrol panel is a maze. There are about a hundred options, and within them cross links to each option, and further subsections. Take a look at the screenshot. See how many are shown (there are two columns), then look at the scroll bar. Thankfullly they’ve implmented a Control Panel Search option – however the search doesn’t yield very useful results. That control panel really needs to be completely redone -it’s horrible.

The start menu is … well, not much of a huge change since vista.  For some reason they thought it might be a good idea to put a “screen capturing” application as one of the options in the main start menu. Personally I believe that space should be reserved for the most often used and important applications. Oh well. Also, all the other power management options have been put into a menu that you can access when you press a tiny little arrow next to the shut down button. There are 5 options you can do there. So much for keeping things simple – mark my words: that menu’ll confuse people. Oh, and here’s the really great thing, the shut down doesn’t ask for any confirmation. Once you click it (especially easy because it’s right next to “My Programs”, some options, and the power management options) it just shuts down whether you like it or not. Who cares about your work, now Windows wants you to be able to shut down with one click. Might as well pull out the power plug whilst your at it. The lack of session management is also disappointing.

Oh, and finally for general things I didn’t like. The sticky notes seemed to be a whole other application on itself, and not integrated at all. I might be wrong, but that was how it seemed to be managed. Solitaire lagged like crazy (maybe because I was on a VirtualBox, but all the same, nothing else seemed that laggy – just the usual Windows speed). Paint had stolen some ideas from Linux’s KDE Paint (KolourPaint I think it was called) and now has a ribbon – wow, how complex do you want to make it? Also, the file structure has gone bonkers. The Documents and Settings has been replaced by “Users”. Also, who uses My Documents, My Music, and My Pictures etc as they should be used? (eg: Documents only for office docs like .doc, .ppt, etc, music for music files, pictures for picture files) Most people create their own structure all within My Documents. Windows trying to enforce some crappy file directory structure upon people, telling them how it should be organised is pathetic. Especially because now we have My Docuements, My Pictures, My Videos, My Music, My Links, My Saved Games, My Notes, My Bookmarks, and a whole bunch more “My” folders.

Now, it wasn’t all that bad. There were a lot of new special effects, and enough glowing items to make me die of epilepsy if I move my mouse across the screen of the regular file manager. They’ve really overdone the characteristic glossy style that Windows has been employing lately, and though I hate that style, maybe some like it.

A change nonetheless. A change worth a couple hundred bucks and the next gen hardware? Probably not.

Uncategorized

Blender 3D: Architecture, Buildings and Scenery – Review

I recently received a book on Blender 3D architecture, Buildings and Scenery from the folks over at Packt Publishing. The author is Allan Brito, those who frequent BlenderNation might have heard his name a few times. I must say, it’s a good book, and I would have no trouble recommending it to folks interested in Blender. Here is my review on it:

Given the limited supply of Blender books available, I believe a book on Blender’s use in architecture is long overdue. Architecture is one of those industries where incorporating Blender into the workflow gives companies an advantage over others, yet the extent to which these advantages are recognised is, simply speaking, dismal. The book “Blender 3D: Architecture, Buildings and Scenery” has managed to address this issue and explain in a clear and concise way the advantages Blender provides, its limitations, and how to implement this tool into existing workflows. This focused approach allows the book to guide anyone, be it a novice or a trained expert, in the use of Blender.

One of the plus points of this book is that it doesn’t try to force the reader into using Blender for all tasks. Unlike other books which would try to promote an “ability to accomplish everything” relying on one program, this book recognises the areas in which Blender is limited, and guides the reader in the use of alternate tools which are more specialised in a certain field. Such examples include The GIMP, YAFRAY, and various script extensions to Blender. When introducing these external tools alongside Blender, the author chooses to focus only on relevant tasks instead of trying to document each feature of the application, which would be highly unnecessary and likely to be inadequate.

Another benefit is that the book explains how Blender is to be used, instead of letting users who are familiar with other 3D packages adjust on their own, since Blender’s interface and highly hot-key driven workflow are often seen as obstacles. This approach, also seen when introducing The GIMP as a tool (which has similar interface issues), gives the reader a firm foundation when using the tool, instead of later developing inefficient techniques when using the application.

Experience in using Blender is not a prerequisite for reading this book. Though the book doesn’t give a reader a lot of practice in modelling, it provides enough information to allow the reader to discover their own modelling style through experience. For those new to 3D graphics, this might be a hindrance, but for those who have used other packages, this would mean that the focus is solely on architecture, and hence a much more enjoyable read. Points are explained clearly and jargon is limited, though it enforces proper terminology when appropriate and covers architectural conventions which makes it easier to incorporate into existing workflows. Furthermore, the book’s focus is on architecture, but many of the techniques described can be applied to other uses, such as photorealistic rendering, modelling techniques, and animating processes.

The language used is informal, friendly and easy to follow, which encourages the reader to decide whether or not certain steps are appropriate for the job at hand, instead of instilling a “word is law” rule in the reader. Diagrams are clearly labelled, though beginners might find they will have to search for buttons and panels, as Blender’s interface is extremely customisable and prone to change in the future.

One demonstration of the books ability to communicate techniques well to the reader is how I was able to follow entire concepts introduced within the book without having to try them out on a computer. Other technically demanding books would normally require experimentation of tools and features before readers could be comfortable with a certain concept.

Unfortunately, the book is based on an older version of Blender. Blender, being open-source, develops all too rapidly, and changes – such as interface rearrangement – can confuse new users. One important example of this is when the book describes a UV editing mode to texture models, the mode of which is now non-existent – it was removed in a recent version of Blender.

Though the book does an excellent job of introducing Blender to architects, one aspect I believe it could expand upon is how Blender is going to progress in the future. Many people are concerned about using open-source applications, meaning that if the book could explain Blender’s rapid growth in popularity – potentially used as a representative for all major open-source applications – this could remove a lot of doubts companies might have.

Also, there were certain simple grammatical and spelling mistakes present within the text which detracted from the professional aspect of the book, which is extremely detrimental when trying to sell open-source software to commercial companies. Some of the formatting was not standardized, and the screenshots showed a lot of different interface layouts, which would confuse new users who are not familiar with Blender’s freedom when customising workspaces. These minor irritations aside, the book’s delivery of points is pretty good.

In conclusion, the book makes clear points, and delivers them in an easily understandable form for any audience. The use of chapter summaries helps the reader understand how each point has benefited them and which techniques should be used when. It takes into account current industry standards, and instead of fighting them, provides viable methods to collaborate with these standards, thus making it easy for readers to realistically apply knowledge they have gained from the book.

…and that’s it! I hope you found it useful, and I’m going to take a break for a few days. If you have any more questions about the book, feel free to drop a comment.

Uncategorized

Conquering Konqueror

Perhaps I don’t need to say it again, but I am a KDE person. This means Kopete, Konsole, Kontact (with KMail, Akregator, Calendar, Todo, etc), Dolphin, Plasma, KWin … KDE. However, funnily enough, one of my greatest it-looks-scary-lets-stay-away-from-it is Konqueror. For those that don’t know, Konqueror is KDE’s ultimate penknife applications. It’s used as a file browser, a web browser, a document viewer, supports remote file browsing, has window splitting (divide and conquer), terminal emulator … basically an all-in-one.

I don’t really like all-in-one programs. I like powerful applications, but all-in-one seems to me to be the ultimate cookbook to failure. Hey, let’s keep on stuffing features in, but let’s not do it very well, so we end up with an unpolished product. Another bad thing about all-in-one applications is that when you want to do something quickly, you’ll have to wait for some monolithic program to load up. Folks who like Konqueror seem to love saying “We’re the exception!” So it’s time for me to check it out. Note: this is Konqueror on KDE 4.1.2. Not any 3.x stuff.

Previously I used Firefox for webbrowsing, Dolphin for file browsing, and ncftp for FTP, as well as ssh for … well, SSH. The best way to evaluate the tool is to use it. Ok, I move my Firefox to Desktop 3, which is basically the Desktop I use for dumping stuff I don’t plan to look at. Open up Konqueror, and I’m greeted with a wonderful splash screen which prompts for me to check out My Home, My Trash, My Network Folders, and My Applications. I like Networked folders, as I’ve got quite a few, and so that’s very useful to me. My Trash – I don’t know. I rarely check my trash. Often it’s the “rm” command that comes whenever I want to obliterate a file. The Home folder is very useful to me, though I generally never keep anything in my /home/dion folder, I tend to categorize everything in /home/dion/documents. Finally, My Applications – it seems as though I’ve got no applications installed – which is a bit disturbing. A quick check in the #kde IRC channel said that some things like that which rely on kioslaves don’t work yet. Bummer.

Well, time to do some web browsing. Go to gmail.com. Oh no! Apparently I’m using a non-fully-supported browser. What a shame. That means no Google Talk. However, some research finds that Kopete supports Jabber stuff like Google Talk, so I can integrate my GTalk contacts into Kopete. Hurrah! Problem solved. A quick poke into the sidebar shows me having no network folders. Apparently that’s still borked too. Bummer. A new tab opens and I love the macro gg: google search keywords go here. +1 for Konqueror, and the whole design is nicely integrated with KDE. Opening new tabs seem to shrink existing tabs. I don’t really like this behavior, and I would prefer for the tabs to take up the whole row before any shrinking is done, and then don’t keep on shrinking it, scroll it, like on Firefox. I don’t think it’s very smart to show a list of nearly identical icons with the text “…” next to it, and expect the user to know exactly what’s in that tab. I then decide to go to wordpress to start drafting the beginning of this post. What do you know, the Visual editor isn’t supported. Bummer. I can’t even resize the box here. (Currently typing this in Firefox).

On the plus size, the sessions feature is great, and so is the splitting of windows. Windowful fun! The sidepane could use a lot more love before I decide it’s useful for me, the networked files wins hands down, file browsing is a breeze, and the profiles are plain ingenious. I don’t know whether I didn’t manage to find it, but there seems to not be a sort of sidebar which shows related information (icon, preview, date, size, owner, etc) when I hover over a file, like Dolphin has. (I was later told this could be gotten through a plug-in).

Here’s a screenshot with a summary as well as to provide some visual stimulation for those who haven’t/cannot experience Konqueror yet. (Click on it for full size)

Well, I don’t think Konqueror would replace my Firefox yet (or even my Dolphin!), but it’s definitely given me a very positive impression of working with networked files. I must say, it’s a good change from ncftp once in a while. Perhaps the developers could use some of the hints here and help fix up some of the issues – especially the ones related to web browsing. Perhaps I’ll review Konqueror again in the future ;)