Geekspeak leaks

My cousin and I had a brief conversation on Twitter the other day (although really, what other kind of conversation can you have in 140 characters or less?) about engineering terms that are considered jargon even when they’re convenient for describing less-technical situations. One term in particular, actually, but I’ll come back to that; it’s an interesting case. The conversation got me thinking about other places where tech-y terms have seeped into my day-to-day vernacular.

Bug resolution jokes aren’t uncommon among people who find them or fix them for a living. When someone logs a software bug and the developer or designer chooses not to fix it, there are a couple possible reasons. Maybe they can’t reproduce the bug (“Not Repro”). Maybe it’s not a bug in their own software, but rather a deficiency in the underlying operating system (“External”). Maybe it really is a bug, but fixing it wouldn’t be cost-effective or would destabilize the rest of the product too much (“Won’t Fix”). Or maybe what the tester thinks is a bug is what the designer thinks is how it’s supposed to work (“By Design”).  While they’re primarily used in technical contexts, they transfer to real life without too much trouble. Someone describes a complex problem that is less likely to happen than a lightning strike on a sunny day, and we’ll respond “Yeah… Won’t Fix, buddy,” with a chuckle.

One that’s become pretty common outside the technical field is “bandwidth.”  In the context of electronic communications, one meaning is the amount of data that can be passed along a communications channel in a specific period of time. Your internet provider may advertise that they offer a high-bandwidth connection, for example. Among my co-workers, I’ve also heard it used referring to their personal ability to take on tasks: “Let’s give that one to Mikey, he’s got the bandwidth right now.”

The term my cousin and I were discussing was “Namespace collision.” It’s not an intuitive name to someone who doesn’t write software code on a regular basis, and yet it describes a situation that just about everybody’s been in at some point. In a nutshell, a namespace is a context in which a particular word or phrase has a specific meaning that might be different outside that context. A namespace collision, then, is when that term is used and it’s initially ambiguous which meaning you’re referring to. This sort of thing happens all the time in real life, as illustrated by a conversation my husband and I had the other day:

Husband: “…and Mike brought waffles and the toaster to HQ on Sunday morning.”
Me, thinking: <Mike? Mike J.? What toaster? Why would he have–OHHH, does he mean Mike H. instead of Mike J.? Mike H. has a toaster that we’ve talked about recently, well, not really HIS toaster, which is why we’ve talked about it…>

In programming, occasionally you’ll have two functions with the same name, say “getSpeed.” If the compiler can’t figure out whether you mean the one that goes with the radar detector software or the one from the auto aerodynamics software, it will give you an error. Every programming language provides a way to designate which one you mean. In conversation, we resort to qualifiers like initials, or possessives, or rambling descriptions like “My co-worker Steve, you know, the one who flies model planes? Who has an office two doors down from me? Yeah, the blond one, that one.”

Everyone’s been there, but we (by which I mean my cousin and I, not the more general we-the-people; another unclear reference) couldn’t think of a general non-technical term that rolled off the tongue as easily as “namespace collision” does for us. “Ambiguity” gets close, but is itself ambiguous: does it mean simply an unclear qualification, or does it refer to a situation where there is no clear answer?

I think “no clear answer” is exactly what we’ve got here.

But in truth, sometimes it’s fun to have inside jokes making light of the challenges we get paid to deal with. I’m certain that engineers aren’t the only ones who make those kind of references. They’re just the ones that I’m likely to catch when they’re thrown.



I’m bringing paperback

Kindles, Nooks, iPads, even smartphones… it feels like everywhere I look, someone’s got some kind of e-reader. Heck, even my mom got one for Christmas last year! Being the voracious reader that I am, you’d think I would be first in line for the latest device. But this is one geek trend I’m skipping, for now. I’ll take my reading the old-fashioned way.

I grew up devouring books. Most times when I got suspiciously quiet, it wasn’t because I was up to mischief, but rather because I’d gotten lost in a book. And I wouldn’t just read them once–if I liked a book (and I rarely met one I didn’t) I was happy to return to it many times. Even as an adult I get as much pleasure reading a book for the second or third time as I did the first time through. Some people watch their favorite movies over and over, spouting memorable quotes. Why should it be strange that I do this with my favorite books?

So, it seems like a no-brainer.  Electronic readers have all kinds of advantages over traditional books. They’re kinder to the environment than printed editions, they’re easier to carry when you want to take the whole library along, and I could read late into the night without turning on the bedside light. Anti-glare screens make it convenient to read outside, and advances in battery usage make it possible to go for weeks without needing a charge. But I’m still not sold. I’ve got a more important, less personal reason to pass for now: I want my son to love reading as much as I do.

Kiddo is still too young to tell an iPod from a smartphone, and the only difference to him between those two and our laptops is their size. In this little boy’s eyes, all of them serve the same purpose: to prevent Mom and Dad from paying Kiddo his rightful share of attention. If I pull out my phone to take a quick peek at my email, he’ll grab my arm and say “No, mom!”  He’s even reacted that way occasionally to other electronics like our digital camera. So, as handy as an e-reader might be for me, he’s not going to see it as a book. He’s going to see it as one more distraction.

Children copy the behaviors modeled by their parents. I remember playing in the backyard as a child while my own mother sat nearby with a book in hand. To show Kiddo how enjoyable reading can be, we have to demonstrate it with items he recognizes as books, not gadgets. Frankly, it’s not that much of a burden for me. I like reading traditional-format paperbacks.  They’re a good fit for my small hands. I like the feel and sound of fanning a new book’s pages; I love flipping to a random place in an old read and thinking, “Oh yeah, I remember this part!” and diving in.

And there are other benefits to analog versions. It’s easy to purchase a new one without needing any special software installed. I don’t worry about breaking them if I drop them, and I can keep reading on the airplane during takeoff and landing, while other electronic devices have to be turned off and stowed. Sure, they both get ruined if they fall in the bathtub, but the replacement cost of a mass-market paperback is considerably lower.

I have no doubt that a couple of years down the road, I’ll be ready for the latest Kindle or its kin. But for now, I’ll take my dead-tree versions, with the hope that I’m planting a seed for the future.


You can take the Mama out of the Geek world…

It’s been nearly twelve years that I’ve worked for my current employer, a software company that I suspect most of you are all too familiar with.  Earlier this month, spurred in part by the seizures and in part by a few personal factors, I decided it was time to leave.  I’m fortunate in many ways; I have the full support of my husband and family in doing this, and we have the means (and medical insurance) such that I can afford to take a couple weeks of down time before jumping back in to the workforce.  It was not an easy decision to make, but from the way I’ve been feeling since putting in my notice, I can’t help but be convinced that this was the right choice to make for now.

Many years ago, when my  previous husband and I were divorcing and I had to start breaking the news to people, I did so with expectations that people would be disappointed in me for not being able to make it work. Instead, I received almost unanimous support from family, friends and co-workers. I thought I was going to hear things like “Have you tried [something else]?” or be told that I was giving up, not trying as hard as I should have.  Instead, I heard things like “I’m so glad! You deserve to be happy,” and “Kudos for making a tough decision!”

This past week, as I’ve been telling my friends and co-workers that I’m ending my working relationship, I’ve realized that I had similar expectations about their reactions.  I worried that people would question my decision, or ask whether I had done everything I could to make things work out. And once again, I’ve realized that I haven’t been giving them enough credit.  Once again, I’m hearing nothing but supportive comments.  My friends and family know I’ve been unhappy here for quite a while, long enough that it’s worn me down physically and emotionally. They probably also know that I’ve stubborn and hate to admit defeat, so it’s not too surprising that it took something drastic to make me realize what was happening. Walking away from a decent salary and a prime slate of benefits seems a little crazy, especially in this economy.  Working here was right for me for many years, and it was through my job that I met many of those friends (one who later became my husband).  But even good relationships can go sour under certain circumstances.  Sometimes it’s possible to put things right.  Other times, the price of staying outweighs the benefits.

I’m an engineer at heart, so I have to analyze. In looking at the similarities between the two “breakups,” I’ve been trying to understand why my first instinct is to brace for criticism and disapproval.  The best I’ve come up with is that it’s the criticism and disapproval that I feel myself. Is this really the right decision? Could I have found a way to make it work if I’d just looked a little harder or put more effort into it?  Clearly I’ve failed somehow, and surely it must be my own fault.  After all, hundreds of other woman, mothers of young children, are able to pull off the necessary balance of effort needed to succeed in the workforce, and even in this high-intensity company.  If they can do it, there’s no reason I shouldn’t have been able to as well.

But frankly, if I’m going to send my Kiddo off to the care of someone else five days a week, it really should be so that I can do something I love and find fulfilling, rather than something that’s going to drag me down or even leave me in tears at the end of a too-long workday.  The people who care about me are able to see that, and I can certainly stand behind it when it applies to other people. I just don’t do as well acknowledging it for myself.

The support and love I’ve gotten from the people close to me as I’ve made this decision has been more than I expected.  As my husband loves to remind me, I am more than just my job title.  Yes, it’s been an integral part of my identity for a very long time, but just as I’m more than a mom, more than a wife, more than a puzzle solver or a blog writer, I’m also more than what’s on my business card. I’m greater than the sum of my many hats–and now, it’s time to try on a new one.

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By the way…

It’s probably obvious by now by now that I’m a huge fan of Intersect.  A couple months ago, they added a new feature: your own personal map with the stories you’ve shared pinpointed in space.  They also provided code to embed your story map in other web pages.  Unfortunately for me and other WordPress users, the embed code uses an HTML tag that the WordPress software intentionally strips out for security reasons.

However, last week I came across a workaround to this problem, and I’m delighted to say that it works almost as well as embedding the map itself.  I’ve added a new page to the menu bar above, and I invite you all to check out my storyline.  I’ve also added a few more stories there to make my map more interesting, although you do have to scroll the map to the left to get to the Hawaii ones.  I’ve got a few more coming soon, but thought it might be more tantalizing to distribute them sloooooowly.  (ok, fine. I’ve been busy this past weekend helping assemble an application for the World Henchmen Organization, and doing various job- and brain-related things.  More stories AND blog posts coming soon, I’m sure of it!)


Getting the picture

Sometime during the past football season, Kiddo discovered the TV. It was bound to happen; my husband and I are regular TV-watchers, and to cut it out of our lives completely wouldn’t have been realistic for us. We did make some changes to our habits so that we were watching it less while Kiddo was awake, but from September through January, our Sundays are usually spent watching men in tight pants crash into each other chasing a funky-shaped ball. And on one of those Sunday afternoons, Kiddo pointed to it and announced “Dee!”  The age of innocence was over.

It’s commonly claimed in online parenting forums that the American Academy of Pediatrics says children younger than 2 shouldn’t have any screen time at all, be it television, computers, or video games.  I looked up the exact recommendations, and found the following:

“In early care and education settings, media (television [TV], video, and DVD) viewing and computer use should not be permitted for children younger than two years.” (from page 58 of the Preventing Childhood Obesity in Early Care and Education PDF)


“Pediatricians should recommend the following guidelines for parents: […] Discourage television viewing for children younger than 2 years, and encourage more interactive activities that will promote proper brain development, such as talking, playing, singing, and reading together.” (from the AAP’s 2007 policy statement on Children, Adolescents and Television)

In other words, daycares and preschools shouldn’t be letting the infants and toddlers watch TV or computer screens; parents should try to find other activities when possible. But I did feel a little better knowing that the recommendation wasn’t that screen time must be avoided completely at home. We’re stumbling enough already in this parenting gig.

Actually, considering how much time my husband and I used to spend in front of the television, I’m pleasantly surprised at how little screen exposure Kiddo actually gets.  He’ll ask us to turn it on, but then he doesn’t pay much attention to it. While he will occasionally look at it for a bit to point out cars and dog, he doesn’t drop everything else he’s doing to watch it. The only time he’s seen popular kids’ shows like Yo Gabba Gabba was when we visited his older cousins last Thanksgiving. He’s started to recognize characters like Elmo and Mickey Mouse, but he knows them as toys and t-shirt decorations rather than TV characters.  Let me be clear, none of this was from any intentional plan to keep his TV time at a minimum. I suspect that if I were a stay-at-home mom, Cailou and Wubbzy would be a regular part of the day.

Back in our pre-kid years, my husband and I would usually eat dinner in the TV room in front of whatever we’d DVR’d recently.  We could usually make it through three or four hour-long programs.  Usually we’d be multitasking, running laundry during the breaks or working on computer tasks while keeping one eye on the big screen.  These days, the three of us usually eat together at the kitchen table with the TV off. After dinner, we play with Kiddo or read stories until it’s time for him to go to bed.  Usually it’s not until after he’s down for the night that we manage to squeeze in one or two shows, much less than we watched together a few years back. But we’re busy enough now that if I tried to watch more than that, I’d be viewing them from behind closed eyelids.

The shows that husband and I watch together are mostly reality shows with a few dramas and comedies mixed in: The Amazing Race, Survivor, Top Chef, American Idol, Castle, How I Met Your Mother, Hawaii 5-0, Glee. We record Burn Notice, CSI, and reruns of NCIS as well, but often end up holding on to them for weeks and watching them when our regular shows are airing re-runs.  Around Christmastime we add The Sing-Off, and during the summer we record Big Brother and the Tour de France.  I have hazy memories of the first couple weeks after Kiddo was born, sitting up with him watching cycling live as it aired during the pre-dawn hours.

It probably won’t be long until we start recording Sesame Street and other kid-directed programs. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being able to enjoy a show together, and I have warm memories of weekly Popcorn Nights growing up, when the whole family would get together to watch Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas on Friday night. Television is just a device. It’s up to us to be parents, and to be wise about how we use it as a family.

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So smart, and shiny too!

Just before Christmas I got a new phone, the HTC HD7.  Every cell phone I’ve had before now has been a tool for making phone calls, sending and receiving text messages, and occasionally taking pictures.  I’d been content with this for years, and my iPod Touch filled the gap for when I needed a quick Sudoku game or email check.  But sometime last summer I started thinking that when my current phone wore out, it might be time to join the era of the smartphone.

I chose the HD7 for two reasons: my service provider (T-Mobile) carried it, and my workplace reimbursed its purchase.  I didn’t comparison-shop for the best plan or try out lots of different models, so I’m not the person to say whether this particular smartphone is definitively better than any other.  What I am is a brand new smartphone user, one who often doesn’t have both hands free to do things on the phone because I’m carrying multiple bags, or managing a small child, or driving to work.  (PSA: Washington State law prohibits driving while texting on a cell phone or talking without the use of a hands-free system.  So, y’know, don’t do that.)  I am merely someone switching from a “dumb” phone to a device that has the fancy bells and ringtones and requires a data plan.

So far? I’m loving it.

For the first couple of days I simply enjoyed the new-toy aspect of it.  But during our Christmas travels, I had a few “wow” moments that really drove home for me how a smartphone can make my life easier.

The first was just after we’d left the driveway.  My husband and I realized that we’d forgotten to call our hotel to reserve a crib reserved for that night.  We’d also forgotten to write down their phone number.  I launched Bing on my phone and typed in the hotel name.  I expected that I’d get a standard page of links, and that I’d have to scroll and click to find the phone number.  Instead, Bing popped up a contact card for the hotel, including a one-touch hotlink to dial the number directly from the contact page!  I was delighted.

Another neat moment happened on our return trip.  Kiddo was cranky after two days of car riding, and ripe for a diaper change.  I knew there was a rest area not too far ahead, but couldn’t remember whether it was twenty miles or forty.  With the Maps app I was able to pinpoint our position, search for “rest area” (it found three close by, including the one I was looking for) and check the distance from our current location.  Sure, our Garmin probably could have told us the same thing… if we could have remembered how to pull up that information on it without losing our current route data.

The ads for the Windows Phone 7 talk about how this OS was designed to make it easier to “glance and go,” so that you spend less time interacting with the device and more time interacting with the real world. While I can’t compare to the other smartphones they’re positioning themselves against, I have found that it’s much faster for me to triage new text messages and missed calls with this phone than it was with my old phone.  Dialing my frequent calls feels a little slower–I think it takes one click more than I’d like it to.  And I kept hanging up on people accidentally when I press the phone against my cheek, but that would be a hazard of any touchscreen phone.  Reviews and commentators have mentioned a few of the items this phone is missing, like the ability to view Flash websites (which I’m told is coming sometime this year) and basic cut-copy-paste functionality.  But in spite of those holes, I’ve found the HD7 to be extremely easy to use.  I don’t think I’ve looked at the manual or any how-to website since the day I bought it.

There’s plenty that I like about my new phone, but what I really love are the ways in which it brings useful things together like electronic chocolate and peanut butter.  Web search plus one-touch dialing.  GPS location plus directions lookup.  And my current favorite?  Well, that would be the one I had to use the other night.  We’d been out doing some evening errands, and on our way to pick up Kiddo from the babysitter I realized I’d misplaced my phone.  Crisis!  I revisited our stops after we collected the boy, but no one had seen it.  It might have been a miserable night, except that I’d added a Windows Live ID to the phone when I was setting up email accounts.  Once I got home I logged on to the Windows Phone website with that LiveID.  And sure enough…

Screenshot of Map it: See your phone's approximate location on a map

If only the rest of my life came with such guidance!


Intersect: a fresh way to say you’ve been where and done what

Last month a friend of mine pointed me to Intersect, a new web site for sharing stories.  After I spent a little time surfing around the site, reading stories and FAQs and getting a feel for the general vibe, I posted my first story.  And just like that, I was hooked.

The idea behind Intersect is straightforward: wouldn’t it be neat to share what happened at a specific time and/or location, without needing to know who else was there or make arrangements in advance?  Stories posted are tagged with a date and time.  The ones you post are added to your storyline; if you find someone else’s story about an event that you attended, like a concert or sporting event, you can borrow that story with a click of a button and incorporate it in your own timeline.  The site makes it easy to search for stories from an intersection of place and time, as well as to create your own from text, photos, videos, or any combination of the above.

I love Intersect CEO Peter Rinearson’s description of how the concept came about:

The idea for Intersect came to me while watching my daughter play lacrosse. I was among several parents shooting photos on the sidelines, and it struck me that other parents were getting shots of my daughter that I’d never see and I was capturing images that other parents might want. Wouldn’t it be great if we could trade photos in some really easy way, even with strangers, and without prearrangement?

It was May 10, 2007 at 4 p.m. The location was Mercer Lid Park, built above Interstate 90 on Mercer Island, a suburb of Seattle. Shouldn’t that be enough information to let me share with other people who were at that same intersection of time and place?

Intersect was born that day.

Stories can be shared with the general public, restricted to circles of Intersect members that you define, or kept private.  While they do require a place, you can be as specific or as vague as you are comfortable with sharing.  As they are posted, they are added to your storyline in correct chronological order, so you don’t need to go back later and juggle dates to make them all line up correctly.  Unlike Foursquare or Facebook Places, which tell people where you are right now, Intersect lets you say that you were somewhere last week, or last year; you don’t need to reveal your current location to people who might take advantage of the fact that you’re away from home.  The Intersect staff offer some tips for walking the line between keeping personal information private and sharing stories with an interested public.  On the other hand, if you don’t mind sharing events simultaneously as they unfold, there’s an app for that too.

With an abundance of websites where we can share media and personal news, why choose Intersect?  There are a number of features that I find really appealing.

I like how it’s easy to upload photos to your photo pool and create a story from them.  I also like the flexibility around how long a story can be.  Sometimes you want to write a longer story to accompany a photo; sometimes a sentence or two will suffice.  Facebook is pretty strong in the photo sharing department, but writing anything longer than a short caption feels clunky, and most of it ends up hidden.  Intersect provides a cleaner-feeling combination of story and exposition.  You can even assign different profile pictures to different points in time, and then see how you’ve changed over the years.

The way stories can connect across time and place is a neat concept to me, and Intersect makes this happen transparently.  No need to hope your Twitter hashtag catches on, or to set up a shared folder and rely on word of mouth to get everyone invited to it.

Scanning back through a friend’s storyline is easy to do.  One thing I enjoy doing when I start following a new blog or Twitter feed is skimming back over the past several dozen entries to get some background for what’s been going on in that person’s world.  With Twitter it’s hard to get to a specific point in time.  With Intersect, it’s trivial.

Initial view of a storyline's time selector

Time selector set to a specific range

The Intersect community so far has a welcoming, friendly feel, which is also a big draw for me.  People have commented on stories I’ve posted, sharing memories of their own about the event or place.  This really helps to foster a feeling of connection, underlining the core idea behind Intersect: we are connected to many people in many ways.

Here’s a fun video by cartoonist David Horsey summarizing what Intersect is all about:


Violating my toddler’s privacy

Twenty years from now, my son will be an adult, forming relationships and seeking career opportunities.  My choices today and in the next several years might have an impact on how that goes.  I’m not referring to the old breast vs. bottle debates, or which school we eventually send him to, or how long we keep him rear-facing in his car seat.  I’m talking about how much of his personal information I share online.

When I was growing up, there were no social media websites.  No one had a blog back then; if you were really good at writing you might get an op-ed column in a newspaper or magazine after you demonstrated that you had the chops for it.  Finding out people’s information involved actually talking to them.  (Gracious me, I sound so curmudgeonly.)  Today, teens and adults voluntarily put that data out there for public consumption.  Gone, apparently, is the fear that an Orwellian government will track our every thought and move, because now we voluntarily broadcast those thoughts and movements, offering them up for anyone to monitor, archive and analyze.  Sharing photos has become second nature–just snap a picture with your phone and send it off to Facebook with the click of a button!  Web services like FourSquare let others know where you are, right this second!  Something on your mind?  Tweet it to the world!  Too ponderous to fit in 140 characters?  Sign up right here.

Those of us who opt to do this for ourselves are implicitly agreeing to deal with any fallout that comes from sharing (and sometimes, oversharing) our personal data.  But for my 1-year-old son and his classmates, there’s no opting in.  Some of their personally identifiable information is already being shared with the world–by us, their parents, the very people whose job it is to protect these kids.  We think little of mentioning where and when they were born, or physical characteristics like hair color, eye color, or scars.  We detail their health history when asking advice from online message boards.  More than that, though, are the photos.  Lots and lots of adorable baby and toddler photos, followed a few years later by back-to-school photos, Halloween photos, family vacation photos, graduation photos, et cetera.  Whether our kids like it or not, we’ve been putting information about them out there since (or even before) they were born.

Kiddo at the zooI spent a lot of time mulling over whether to publish photos on this blog.  In the end, as you can see, I decided in favor of it.  But I still wonder whether I’m doing my son a disservice.  I wonder whether I’m taking away his future option to control which information about him is publicly available.  But I also wonder, will he even care?  By the time our little Kiddo is old enough to understand that he’s a searchable term, it might be something we as a society have just come to accept, that all our day-to-day activities are going to get publicly surfaced one way or another, by us ourselves or by others with whom we interact.  I can’t even conceive of how the concept of Privacy will have changed twenty years from now.  Perhaps our son’s college exploits documented by his buddies won’t interfere with his getting a job, because everyone shares this information with everyone else.  Maybe it won’t be embarrassing that Kiddo’s new date can find his baby photos, because he’s already seen theirs too.

Meanwhile, in the here and now, my husband and I have the onus of deciding how much about our child(ren) to make public.  At first, I restricted my photo sharing to password-protected sites like Facebook.  I soon found that calling this option “privacy” is misleading, because all someone needs to do to get around it is copy the picture to their own computer.  Avoiding the web altogether and simply emailing the images is no sure thing either.  Last fall we forwarded a cute photo from Kiddo’s daycare teacher to a couple family members.  Next thing we knew, it was up on Facebook!  Once that picture or tweet or status update gets out of your direct control, you might as well consider it public property, because it’s just so darn easy for the people with whom you share it to pass it along further.

Is there a solution?  I’m not sure.  Even if we restricted ourselves to snail-mailing actual photographs, that still wouldn’t prevent someone from scanning them and uploading the images for their own digital collection.  We have to either choose to live unconnected to the social web, or accept that by sharing pictures and commentary, we’re releasing a snapshot of our lives to the public domain.

Let me be clear: I think social media is a great thing.  It allows us to have regular contact with far-away family members, and it facilitates virtual communities where we can connect with others like us.  Just like face-to-face friendships, we chat about our families and swap pictures and advice.  But somewhat ironically, the conversations we carry on in real life circles often are less permanent than those in the virtual world.  It’s each person’s personal business how much or how little they put out there about themselves.  As parents of children too young to decide for themselves, we need to be custodians of their personal information as well as our own.  Where’s the line?

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Our son is going to grow up in a world where sitting on your butt to play a video game is no longer the default.  The Kinect controller is literally a game-changer.

For the past couple months, my husband and I have been part of the beta test program for Kinect and some of the new games for it.  It only took us one or two play sessions to agree that this was one gadget that was going on the Christmas list.  Except we knew there was no way we were going to wait until Christmas.  Our Kinect is now downstairs by the TV, and I’m pretty sure I know how we’ll be spending the weekend.

The two games I played during the beta test were Dance Central and Kinect Adventures.  Dance Central is the Kinect version of Dance Dance Revolution.  Rather than hopping on a floor pad trying to hit combinations of foot buttons, you’re replicate specific dance moves using your whole body.  The bad news is that you’ll probably look pretty dorky at first.  The good news is that you won’t look any dorkier than everyone else!  One nice advantage Dance Central has over Dance Dance Revolution is that you never have to worry about the pad slipping around underfoot.  I’ve lost many a round of DDR due to shifting or rotating my body without realizing it, and I would end up stomping on the corner pad when I want the side one.  There are no buttons to hit with the Kinect, so there’s nothing to slip off.  I thought it was a lot more fun getting arms and hips and everything else involved.

However, the one I kept coming back to was Kinect Adventures.  It’s got half a dozen mini-games you can play–my two favorites are Rally Ball (you’re playing virtual handball) and 20,000 Leaks (you’re in a glass cube underwater, blocking leaks with yours hands, feet, and whatever other body parts are available).  All the games can be played by one or two players, sometimes in co-op mode and sometimes competitively.  You can pull out the minigames to play individually, or you can move through the adventure, earning living statues as you go.  I found all the games to be pretty intuitive and very easy to pick up. 

There were a couple things during the Kinect beta test that I wasn’t thrilled about.  It took me a little while to get the hang of the “back” pose that takes you back to the previous menu.  When selecting a tile in the dash, I had to hold my hand palm-forward over my selection for several seconds; maybe I’m just naturally jittery, but for some reason this pose was difficult for me.  I haven’t checked out yet whether that has improved with the shipped version.  But the amount of time spent doing either of those is small relative to the amount of time spent jumping, swerving, dancing, and ducking, and I think I’ll get used to it with plenty of practice.

The games and the moves are intuitive, but more importantly, they’re just plain fun!  Even if you’re a little shy about getting up and looking silly in front of others, like I was, it doesn’t take long to get into the spirit of the game.  You simply can’t be blasé about it when you’re balanced on one foot using your forehead to block cracked glass in 20,000 Leaks, or flapping your arms to levitate your avatar high enough to pop the last couple bubbles in Space Pop.  It’s almost impossible to not get into the music when you’re swinging your hips and shaking your shoulders.  You can’t help but laugh at yourself, and that’s what will draw people back again and again.

There is a downside to the Kinect, and that is that it’s not for those nights when you want to veg out on the couch with some mindless button-mashing.  Some nights, I just want to put my feet up and plow through LEGO Indiana Jones without moving much more than my thumbs.  But I don’t think hand-controller-driven games are ever going to fade completely out of the picture.  It’s like how the DVR changed television watching; even though you can now watch your shows whenever it’s convenient and skip all the ads, there are still going to be times when you want to watch TV live, commercials and all.  The Kinect isn’t going to entirely replace the handheld controller, but it is going to radically change how we play many of our games.  I’m excited to watch it happening, and even more excited to jump up and be a part of it.

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Project Sunset

I’ve got a project for someone.  You’ll need a camera and a computer, and some programming skills, and a web site that can host about 400 photos.

A couple weeks ago I was driving from my office to downtown Bellevue shortly after sunset.  The sky and the buildings looked like a typical autumn evening around here.  And that got me wondering what exactly it was, other than my knowledge of the calendar and my view of the trees, that made me think it’s an autumn evening as opposed to any other season?  I figured it was probably something about the angle or quality of the light that did it, but since the sun had crossed the horizon a little while earlier it wasn’t direct light or shadows.  Whatever it was, it looked cold.  I was glad I had a warm car and gloves.

We take a lot of very subtle cues from the environment that help us determine where we are in the daily or yearly cycle.  Go take a nap in the park on some nice summer day.  When you wake up, don’t look at your watch, just look around you at the shadows.  Odds are, you’ll probably have a rough idea of how long you were napping based on how they’ve changed.  Most of us don’t deliberately try to learn this, but you see the world every day, and after several years of living year-round in the same place, you get an innate feeling for when the leaves will sprout or change color, and how long it takes shadows to crawl across the floor.

I didn’t think about this very much until about ten years ago, when I visited South Africa for a week in June.  We got off the plane around 10 a.m. local time, but as we drove out of the city into the more rural areas, something felt really off.  Logically I knew it was morning, but my brain was convinced it was six or eight hours later.  I’m sure part of it was jet lag and the unfamiliar countryside, but there was something different about the way the light was hitting in the Southern Hemisphere that just looked out of whack.  I was aware that we were in a different season and therefore the length of the days and nights would not be the same as what I’d just traveled from.  But I couldn’t figure out why I’d have the sensation that east and west were opposite of what I was used to, or that we were a couple hours away from sunset rather than a couple hours past sunrise.  Over the years since that visit, I’ve tried a couple times to work out the geometry of the problem in my head but I only end up confusing myself, convinced both ways at once.

Anyway, the project.  Set up a camera pointed at a fixed location outside–preferably one without too many natural cues like trees and grass.  Find the sunset tables for the next 12 months.  Program your camera to take a picture a set interval after sunset every day, say something in the range of 15 to 30 minutes.  It needs to be after sunset so that ambient light is reflected rather than direct, but I think the priciple would also work if you take a picture a set number of minutes prior to sunrise, just as long as the sun is below the horizon.  Then upload that daily picture to a web site where I (and anyone else who’s curious) can compare pictures taken several weeks or months apart, and see whether there really is a difference between the look of a spring evening and a fall evening.