Lifehack: the bathroom mirror

Like most people, I do my best thinking in the restroom.  Quality time in the shower, meditating on a shave, reflecting on my day while brushing my teeth, or just relaxing, it’s a place where my mind has the opportunity to meander peacefully.  Some of my most creative ideas have come to me while showering, and while taking my junior qualifying exam at Reed I figured out the path for two of the problems I was stuck on during restroom breaks.

So I recently stuck a dry erase marker on the counter by the sink, and now have a way to quickly jot an idea down after washing my hands, but before I’ve found a pad of paper or iPhone, or the thought just slips away.  My wife can toss the honey-do tasks or other reminders on there for me as well, to assess while I’m polishing my pearly whites.

Mathematica Data Visualization: book review

2999OT_Mathematica Data Visualization_cov_0It’s not one of the topics I cover here much, but I enjoy hobbying in computational analysis.  Mathematica is one of my favorite tools for this, and I’ve used it for a number of projects, including building a pretty nifty game with the goal of making the world a better place.  Related to that, I was given the opportunity to review a pretty cool book about Data Visualization in Mathematica, aptly titled Mathematica Data Visualization by Nazmus Saquib.  It a fantastic lightweight introduction to creating a variety of visualizations using.  It starts off with a general introduction to the topic, along with some of the ways of thinking about data, and then moves on to the practice and art of looking at data and sharing data.  The authors definitely channel Tufte and other greats in the field, sharing useful guidance for selecting color schemes, simplifying, and creating interactive visualizations.   They are not limited in focus, analyzing social graphs, maps and paths, economic data, lists, and the physical form of currencies in their examples that are drawn from real-world applications.  Overall, if this is a topic of interest I highly recommend Mathematica as a tool, and Mathematica Data Visualization as a guide.  Disclosure: while I was not compensated, I did receive an electronic copy of the book for review.  The book can be found here: https://www.packtpub.com/big-data-and-business-intelligence/mathematica-data-visualization

Chess Opening Principles

Up front, I am far from being a chess master.  If you’re experienced enough to know that you’re not very good, we’d probably have a decent game.  But, I’ve done some research on chess openings, and played quite a few games, and would like to put together a quick, accessible summary of some sound opening principles.

These opening principles are guidelines: you will find plenty of exceptions as you play.  But faced with so many options, this should help to narrow them down.

What is the opening for?

In general, the opening is for:

  • developing pieces
  • protecting the king
  • controlling the center

One of the first things you’ll find as your game improves is that you are not trying to win in the opening.  You are just laying the foundations for a sound middle game.  As we learn in life, a strong opening is the key to creating your own luck.

The opening challenge

Almost all openings begin with either e4 or e5 for white.  This is a play for the center.  Black often responds in kind.  The key here is that white plays first.  That 1/2 move advantage is large for white, enough so that white and black typically have different goals in the opening: white’s goal is to secure an advantage, whereas black’s goal is to achieve equality.

The chess narrative

A chess match has three components: the opening, the middlegame, and the endgame.  Not so unlike a book.  And similar to a book, it can be a bit unclear as to when one ends and the next one begins.  So think of the opening as the part of the book where the story is established.  The characters get introduced, the major themes may be outlined, the world is described.  But more subtly, the pacing of the story may be set, the writing style and intentions laid out.

Similarly in chess, the opening gives players a chance to horse trade to achieve their desired narrative, which takes shape in the middle game.  In the opening, characters are introduced in the form of pieces being played to key squares.  Subtle differences can lead to a majestic and sweeping middlegame with valiant piece exchanges, or it can lead to a calculatingly tactical set of skirmishes for control of a single key square.

As you advance, you’ll discover ways to guide a game to become the type of game that you would like to play, which includes guiding a game to become the type of game that your opponent does not want to play.

The tactics

Here are some rules of thumb that I have found useful:

  • Don’t move a piece twice (this includes pawns) – it’s all about rapid development at this point.  Moving a piece twice is often a waste of time because the narrative has not yet unfolded.
  • Only move the King and Queen pawns eatly
  • Knights then Bishops – in the quest for efficient development, knights are often the easiest to deploy.  There are really only two squares where you’d want to move a knight: the bishop file, or the next one towards the center.  The Bishop has several more to choose from, so you may like to let the narrative unfold a bit before introducing this character.
  • Knights and Bishops then Rooks – the rook is very powerful, but takes time to unleash correctly.  Leave it home until you see where it will unleash maximum firepower.
  • Castle, please Castle – This protects the king, connects the rooks, and develops a rook, all in one move!  Just do it, do it early, and do it kingside.
  • When in doubt, castle – I like to get my development on as quickly as possible.  Usually at some point I’m not sure where I want to go next, so Bam!  Castle, done.  Castling when your opponent castles can help too.
  • Develop your side of the board – it’s dangerous across the border.  Your pieces will be subject to attack by lowly pawns, which will force them to move twice.
  • Play for the center – The four squares in the middle are the most strategic positions to own early in the game.  Play to them, support them, own them

The principles

Fast, solid development is the key to a strong middle game.  To think about the speed of a game, the notion of tempo was introduced.  While it is roughly the same as a move, there is a critical difference: you can gain and lose tempo over your opponent.  To gain tempo, you make moves that cause your opponent to waste moves.  An easy example of this is attacking while developing.  You make a move towards the middlegame, while forcing your opponent to react to you.  To give an idea of the importance of tempo in chess, black starts the game down one tempo, and overcoming that is one of black’s primary goals.

Controlling the center of the board allows you the most freedom while restricting your opponent.

A strong pawn structure is crucial.  Moving  just one pawn wrong can expose your king and cause you to waste tempi in protecting your line.  Try to leave the kingside pawns home to protect the king for castling, and delay moving the queenside pawns until you have a goal for them.

What’s next?

Play some games.  Get used to the tactics and principles.  Read further.  For reference, these are some good articles in the same area:

http://www.chess-strategies-tactics.com/chess-opening-principles

http://www.chess.com/blog/NimzoRoy/chess-opening-principles

Read books, play through some games.  I recommend studying Capablanca, as I find his games incredibly clear for such a high level.

Then, learn a few openings.  Two or three are good for a start…one as white, and then a black response to P-K4 and P-Q4 each.  I’m always amazed at how quickly games diverge from the openings.  But you will notice themes.

MS Flight: they still don’t get it

Well, I have to say, I’m a bit sad.  I have really enjoyed MS Flight.  It seemed to be targeted at the casual Flight Simmer.  I suppose that would be me.  I like FSX as well, but it’s a bit clunky, and very full-featured.  When I feel like some defined missions or lightweight adventures, MS Flight is great.  The graphics and performance are nice on my system.

I just read today that they’ve cancelled the program, which is too bad.  I do hope for the best for the team behind MS Flight.

Carbon Cub above Alaska
Southern Alaska in my Carbon Cub over  beautiful scenery, but I can’t get into the cockpit!

The Pricing Model

I really appreciated the idea behind the Flight pricing model, as variant on the freemium DLC model.  Basically, you could download and play the game for free with a limited amount of scenery and planes.  The limited scenery consisted of one Hawaiian Island and a couple planes.  You could then purchase the rest of Hawaii, or a few additional planes.  Or they offered the bundle for 25 or 30 dollars.  At the same time, it was possible to purchase the bundle through Steam for $15, which I promptly did.

They later offered an Alaska pack as well, along with one additional plane.

The Content

Overall, the content is beautiful.  The water is beautifully rendered, shadows and skylines are great, and the towering cliffs look fantastic.  Scenery feels unique, not tiled.

The Gameplay

Well, it appears that the hardcore simmers aren’t too pleased with the gameplay.  They miss being able to fly anywhere.  There’s a shortage of planes, and no big ones, gliders, or helis.  There’s a limited amount of customization available.  And honestly, I think the hardcore simmers prefer a more spartan UI.

I’d like to be able to build a flight plan and use it.

The missions are fun and challenging, and I enjoy the occasional aerocache hunt.

So what’s the problem?

After so much experience with their Flight Simulator series, and success, why would MS discount the industry that they helped to create?  There are a ton of companies build around custom scenery, planes, add-ons, hardware, consoles, and chassis.  MS Flight doesn’t support any of them.  MS decided to go it alone.  Would the iPhone have been successful if Apple had squashed 3rd party apps?  It would still just be a phone that browses.  How could MS have missed this opportunity?  For relatively little work, they could have enabled 3rd party developers to release scenery, planes, missions, and more, through their proprietary “app store”, all the while, raking in the easy money.

Instead of raking in easy money, they chose to keep it closed and go it alone.  Well, it worked well for them in the 90s, why not now?

It’s tricky though

In the end, MS did bite of a pretty complex problem.  They attempted to take niche product and grow the market.  Unfortunately, they appear to have alienated their existing customer base by not offering something that appealed to them and snubbing their entire commercial advocate community.  At the same time, they offered a product to the commodity gaming market that isn’t exactly “fun”.  Flight simulators aren’t exactly a “fun” game, which is probably why they’re niche in the first place.  Rather than fun, they deliver an experience.  It’s occasionally fun, but that’s not what keeps me coming back.  It’s challenging and educational.  It puts me in places to see places around me from a new perspective.  It’s flying, and it’s not for everyone.

So what could they do better?

Rock, Paper, Shotgun has some good suggestions as to what could have saved MS Flight.  Among them are additional planes (such as gliders and helicopters).  While I’m pretty happy with Hawaii and Alaska for flying around in, I probably won’t be forever.  I enjoy using  Orbx’s Pacific Northwest scenery to explore the areas I most often go.  Sadly, this will probably never be an option for MS Flight.

The Steam thing was really confusing for me.  I purchased the DLC, then they made me install Steam and run Flight through there, and I don’t know why or what it meant.  Why not just offer the discount themselves instead of some weird bait-and-switch maneuver.  Oh, well.

Community.  I’ve flown a bit with others in MS Flight.  It was pretty fun.  Tools to help people be in a community would be handy.

Tools for the newb.  Flight simming is much more fun if you aren’t just flying.  Provide tools and guidance for building flight plans, and for connecting with experienced flyers.

The comments on this thread from passionate flight simmers are quite telling as well:

“If only MS realised from the start that it was us FREEWARE developers that really made the FS franchise it is today….. ” – 7107delicious

“Microsoft did without a doubt take their eye off the ball. We’ve been loyal to them for many years; this last go round we were treated like the unseen red-headed step children of the software world.” – Aaron aka Stretch

Conclusion

MS Flight is a great product.  The experience is quality, the visuals are solid.  But MS managed to not learn from their own experience, and from the successes of others.  I guess it’s just too bad that MS keeps making these silly mistakes over and over.  They continually release a solid product that is just subtly yet significantly flawed.

But MS continues to underestimate the power of community, and how communities react.  They seem to live in this world where they believe one action has no effect on another.  (their wooing of the OSS community is another wonderful tale I witnessed).  If you have a bunch of people who support you, at least let them think that you’re supporting them back.

Simplify

I’m embarking on a new mission with my family to simplify our lives and get out of debt. We’ve somehow managed to drive our credit card debt well into the 5 figures, and that’s not sitting too well.  We are working on becoming aggressive towards our debt.  Here are the initial steps we’ve taken to eliminate this burden.

  • Stop using credit cards
  • Move cc balances to 0% interest account
  • Kill debt with savings
  • Consolidate subscriptions
  • Question purchases
Debt in the cross hairs
This is where we’re at after an initial paydown, and the consolidation in progress.

 

Stop using credit cards

This has been a huge shift.  Enticed by my REI dividends, I’ve been using my REI card for years.  At first I had the intention of paying monthly, but then a large expense would hit, and it would carry.  The balance would cascade and build and then everything else was a drop in the pan.  Credit card is out of the wallet now.

I used my credit card to pay my subscriptions and have online for the Apple store, Amazon, Playstation Network, Google, and others.  It’s how I paid my gym membership, Netflix, and just about everything else.  Everything is being moved to our account at our credit union.  Almost everything is there now, but there are still a few lingering.

I use Mint to see what’s still hitting the credit card, then seek and destroy.

Move cc balances to 0% interest account

Since I’m not going to be able to annihilate my credit card debt in one fiscal quarter, I decided to take advantage of some 0% balance transfer offers.  For 3% of the total balance, I’d be off the hook on interest for a year.  3% is $300 for every $10,000 in debt you’re carrying.  The credit cards run around 12% give or take, so that same $10,000 costs about $100 per month.  So I transferred everything I wasn’t confident that I could pay down in 3-4 months.

Kill debt with savings

This one might be a bit controversial, but the interest on a savings account is much lower then the interest on a credit card.  So, we’re paying down the debt with savings.  I guess if we’re struck with an emergency we end up going back to the credit card, or hitting a retirement account.  But I think it’s key to eliminate this debt, so the snake will be eating its tail for the next year.

Consolidate subscriptions

We’re investigating ways to consolidate our online subscriptions.  For example, we both splurged on spotify accounts.  We now share one account, saving $10/mo. We also share a kindle account.   Now I need to figure out how to share our google account.

Question purchases

Still working this one out, but we’re taking a stronger look at our discretionary expenses.  No more “hey, this magazine looks like fun” types of expenses.  So far I’ve managed to cut this fairly dramatically, but still looking at drawing the actual numbers out of it.

Next steps

Well, I’d like to let the waters settle from these initial actions and make sure that we’re taking advantage of our new patterns.  But, my hope is to simplify our lives, and the space we live in.  Take an aggressive stance towards paying down the debt over the next year, and reign in expenses as a lifestyle.

Loving the Max

was just thinking about my commute since I’ve been riding regularly, and how much I enjoy my morning time on Portland’s light rail, the Max.

It’s really the only time of the day that I can count on to be my own time. I can read, write, get some work done, chat with strangers, or just stare blankly.

When I work, it’s without fear of interrupts, so that 30 minutes can be more productive than a whole day in the office. as far as production goes.

All this while I’m actually making progress towards a goal, which is getting to work.

And then when I ride home over the west hills, that beer tastes even better.

20120704-151537.jpg

New toy review: Flip Mino HD

I recently received my new Flip camera.  I ordered online and got the custom design.  Sorta half-assed that, but that’s okay.  The first thing I noticed about it after picking it up is that it is lighter than I’d expect.  As in it feels somewhat plastic.  I immediately plugged it into my computer to charge it and play with it.  The charge happened pretty quickly, so the playing did as well.

The second thing you notice about the Mino HD is that it doesn’t have a lot of buttons.  There’s a big red one in the middle.  Must be important.  There’s right and left arrows, a plus and minus, a trash can, and a play button, none of which are tactile.  On the right is a flush button for power, and on the left is a slider that unlocks the USB.  This Flip has a place for an (mini) HDMI cable (that I don’t have) and tripod mount on the bottom.

Cleverly, the unit is entirely self-contained, with the exception of the soft sack that contains it.  Even the software comes onboard and is compatible with Mac and PC.  The movies play in Linux with mplayer, but then I have to forgo editing power, so I’ll overtax my poor old mac laptop.

The image stabilization was a key factor in my selection of this model.  I’m not looking to take Blair Witch baby movies (baby = reason I got this thing).  And I’m happy with the stabilization. It does a pretty good job and making my non-surgeon hands feel steady.

I am not happy with the non-tactile buttons.  Their placement is awkward for me, in that I hit them when I don’t want to and can’t hit them when I do.  Running the entire set down each side with a selector for right-or-left-handed operation might be an interesting way to handle it.

The screen is fine, it shows you what you’re filming, and since you can’t control anything but zoom and what you’re pointing at from where, it doesn’t matter except for framing and sanity check.  We’re not filming the next great Galifinakis film here, it’s a Flip so I can film my daughter (upcoming) and dog and send them to family and a few friends who care.

I’ve had the Flip crash on a few occasions.  Lockup, lockdown, both ways to Sunday.  One time I had to jam a paper clip into the tri hole.  That let it do a hard reset, which didn’t appear to do anything more than a plain reset (data was still there) except it worked again.  It’s a simple device and I haven’t used it that much, so it’s feeling fairly unstable so far.

The software is fine.  It seems like it might have the beginnings of some social characteristics, but I think it’ll be a pretty nice way to send stuff to the aforementioned family and friends.

Overall, I’m going to give the Flip Mino HD a C+/B-.  In some ways it’s great, but in too many ways it’s just not awesome enough.

Instant Replay in Soccer

After the US’s disappointing (yet thrilling) tie against Slovenia, you can be sure that there will be a clamor for instant replay in soccer. On the surface, it seems like a great idea. Matches will end with the true winner victorious, honor will be restored to the game.

This is a terrible idea. There is a purity about soccer. 23 men on the pitch, and only a few rules on how to play the game. All you need is a ball and some friends to play.

It’s true, there are a lot of bad calls. Sometimes the referee is biased, sometimes, he’s bad, and sometimes he gets emotional. But bad calls are a part of the game. You can’t interrupt the fluidity to stick your face into a replay booth every time someone is unhappy with a call. Because the review would overturn the call too often.

In a soccer game there are 22 players on the pitch, and they are subject to the rule of one man: the referee. If the referee decides that the game should last for 112 minutes and kicking with your left foot is a foul, that’s how the game will be played. People may not be happy with it, and the ref will likely not be invited back, but that is the game that was played.