How I Work: Jeff Miller, The Curt Jester

As a counterpoint to the How I Pray series, I’ve challenged other bloggers to answer Lifehacker’s How I Work questions on their own blogs for a kind of ora et labora thing. Now my uber-techie friend Jeff Miller, The Curt Jester, steps up and shames all geeks with his mad power-user skilz, yo. Jeff was my first How I Pray victim subject, so there’s a kind of symmetry in having him here again:

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?

In one of the first questions it asked me to use one word to describe how I work and that was Edison. I chose this word not through prideful bravado or thinking I am any kind of genius, but because of my stick-to-it-ness. Supposedly Edison just kept trying different filaments until one worked. How true that is I don’t know. But I do know that in coding and other situations I don’t easily give up regarding a frustrating problem not easily solved and keep trying different alternatives until I find one that works. In the past this allowed me to do some rather surprising things with software development not envisioned by the authors of the tools.

As for doing this better than everybody else, well I wouldn’t want to put any money down on that proposition.

Read the whole thing.

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How I Work

The How I Pray series was inspired by Lifehacker’s How I Work series, which asks tech and business folks a set of questions about their work habits.  I decided to answer those questions myself as a counterpart to the prayer series: ora et labora. 

Location: The New Jersey Pine Barrens
Current Gig: Writer, editor
One word that best describes how you work: Desultorily
Current mobile device: iPhone 5S, iPad 2
Current computer: Custom desktop PC running Windows 7, and cheapo Dell Inspiron N5050 bought at Walmart

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? Why?
Dropbox, Drafts, and Scrivener.

Dropbox is the repository for everything I do: files, pictures, text, notes: everything.

Drafts is kind of the traffic cop: it allows me to write, clip, and push text anywhere I want. I’ve stopped using Evernote for ideas, lines, and quotes and just use Drafts to append time/date-stamped text to TXT files in Dropbox. I’m really not sure why I still use Evernote, actually. I’m writing this post in it now, and I clip some stuff here now and then, but really that’s just habit.

Finally, Scrivener is the perfect word processor. I like distraction-free plain text editors, but after playing with all of them I still find myself writing straight in Scrivener. I have projects for different subjects (Tech, Catholicism, and individual books), and then keep folders in those projects for each magazine, with other folders for each assignment, and files for each piece of each assignment. It’s nothing but folders all the way down. It’s amazingly easy to use once it’s set up.

Let me also give a shoutout to Boxer (an excellent mobile email app); Verbum, Kindle, GoodReader, Universalis, and Shakespeare Pro (all reading apps); MagicalPad and Textlus (my favorite mind-mapper/outliner and word processor for mobile); and especially Newsify, my RSS reader. I use each of them a lot. And, no, I’m not linking all those.

I use a lot of different pencils and pens so I’m not going to list them all. I like the Palomino Blackwing 602, for the writing quality, and the Faber-Castell Perfect Pencil, because the cap lets me carry it in my pocket. I also carry an Opinel No. 6 folding knife everywhere. I use unlined green Moleskin Volant notebooks in 7-1/2″ x 10″ and 3-1/2″ x 5-1/2″. I don’t carry a laptop at all any more. I use an iPad with a Zagg keyboard for all my mobile writing.

What’s your workspace setup like?

Desk

Desk

iPhone screen

iPhone screen

iPad screen

iPad screen

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack?
I send things to Pocket. I subscribe to dozens of RSS feeds and find countless stories that interest me as I browse through them at breakfast. Rather than just watching the morning slip away while I flit from one to the other, I send them to Pocket for future reading. The best part is that I rarely get to most of them, so it’s a built-in time-sink filter. However, when I want to do a quick search for a subject, stories based on my interests are always there.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?
I’ve tried Every. Single. One. Right now I use a combination of Readdle’s Calendars 5 and a whiteboard over my desk. The Calendar tracks assignments, appointments, and general to-dos. At the end of each day I write the next day’s tasks on the whiteboard, sometimes with with times for each one.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
None. I can live fine without any of them. Pushed to pick one must-have machine, I’d say it’s my well. I drink about a gallon of water a day, straight out of the ground, and it is the best water you’ll find anywhere. Filtering it would actually make it less pure.2015-03-19 16.13.02

I like my coffee maker; my cheap-o blu-ray player is a complete media hub for movies, music, Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix; and I always carry a nifty pen/stylus/flashlight thingie that my father-in-law gave me, but I’d survive if they went away.

One of my favorite machines is my Classroom Friendly Supplies Groovy Green Pencil Sharpener. I write longhand a lot, and it’s a perfect pencil sharpener.

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?
Sequencing tasks. Maybe it’s all those years of computer-gamer training, but I can set up a mental queue of things to do that will group tasks by location, theme, difficulty, whatever, and just knock them off.

What do you listen to while you work?
Usually nothing. I find music distracting most of the time. When I do listen, it’s either medieval or baroque, lounge (Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Esquivel), or soundtracks (Morricone, Carpenter, Tangerine Dream)

What are you currently reading?
I’m doing 15 minutes of Bible and 15 minutes of Shakespeare every day. And by “every day” I mean, “not really every day but I try, really I do.” Like most readers, I’m always in the middle of several things at once. Right now I’m reading Ancient Near Easter Thought and the Old Testament, Terry and the Pirates Vol. 1, and the CUA edition of the Dialogues of Gregory the Great on my Verbum app, along with other odds and ends and Lenten reading.

What has changed over the years since you started and what do you do differently?
When I first started writing professionally, it was on an electronic typewriter. A short time later, I would print out my text on a dot-matrix printer and mail it to the magazine or newspaper along with a floppy disk including the file. I talked on the phone to editors and subjects all the time. I traveled to trade shows and companies to look at products. Now much of what I write never appears on paper, I deal with everyone electronically and avoid talking to people whenever possible, and I don’t travel. And you know what? I like it better this way.

My every day carry

My every day carry

My Favorite Game of 2014 Was …

Monument Valley.

2015-01-20 15.23.20

Monument Valley (Ustwo; iOS/Android: $4) is a small game. It won’t take you long to finish, and it’s not very challenging, but what it offers is such a pure delight that it became my personal favorite game of 2014. Indeed, I would argue that it was the best game published all year, and for an iPad-only puzzle game, that’s quite an achievement.

People are throwing most of their 2014 GOTY awards at Dragon Age: Inquisition. I have no problem with that: it’s an impressive piece of work. I may be just suffering Bioware fatigue, but I’ve had enough Biodialog-trees and Biorelationships and Biocombat and Bioquests to hold me for a while. Honestly, if I had to pick an RPG that I enjoyed more than any other this year, Inquisition would have taken a backseat to Legend of Grimrock II. Endless Legend also would have been ahead of Inquisition.

2015-01-20 12.04.05Monument Valley offered something different and simple and appealing, and I like that more and more the older I get. It’s an example of a game that is more about the experience than the challenge. None of the puzzles in either the original game or the Forgotten Shores add-on will stop serious puzzlers for more than a few minutes. Altogether, the play time probably adds up to about two hours at the most. The appeal is in the quality, not the quantity: in the experience rather than in the difficulty.

The visual style of Monument Valley is what grabs you first. Drawn with clean lines and sharp angles, it packs a lot of information into its shifting, single-screen puzzles. The most obvious comparison is with the artwork of surrealist MC Escher. His impossible architecture is at the heart of Monument Valley’s world and its puzzles.

You guide a little princess in a conical hat through ten worlds (with another seven in the add-on), attempting to get her from the beginning to the end. Each screen is given a chapter number and title, with a subtitle that hints at a “story” that never develops and only provides another layer of atmospheric mystification.

It’s not a wholly unpopulated world. The Bothersome Crow People walk set patterns that either block your path forward or enable you to trigger buttons remotely. There’s a mystic/monk figure offering cryptic comments. And, best of all, you have an occasional companion/helper called Totem. He’s a big-eyed totem pole who provides help with a couple of levels, and when he appears to die, you actual feel a little sad. It’s a game that gets under your skin in weird ways.

2015-01-20 12.07.27Each screen can be manipulated with levers and buttons to alter the configuration of its various structures in impossible ways. As with the work of Escher, a walkway will suddenly turn one direction only to open up access on a completely different plane. It’s the kind of thing that’s hard to describe in print, but the result is that you climb through impossible architecture at strange angles, triggering changes in the layout in order to get to the endpoint.

The gentle music, soothing visuals, and dazzling use of space and motion create an otherworldly experience that moves beyond the limits of mere gameplay. Of particular note is Chapter VIII: The Box: the one of the best implementations of a mechanical puzzle box that I’ve ever played in an electronic game.

I’ve certainly played much harder puzzle games, but few that I found quite so enchanting as Monument Valley. Even when the gets a bit dark (and there are storm-tossed seas and deep descents that hint at classic elements of the hero’s story), it stays enjoyable. The key to its appeal is that as a game, it’s content to find a balance among its various aesthetic elements (art, music, animation, structure) and its gameplay, which is mild and refreshing. Careful observation and tinkering will yield a solution pretty quickly, so frustration never overrides the gentle atmosphere. I’ve always argued against games as art, but Monument Valley come closer than most to making me question that opinion.

The Latest Federal Power Grab: Navigation Apps

Government bureaucracy is the kudzu of modern civilization. It’s a smothering, all-consuming, self-perpetuating monster that sucks the life out of everything it touches. 

Case in point: for some bizarre reason known only to the infantile minds of government functionaries, Obama’s Transportation Department (go ahead, I defy you to explain why a such thing even exists) believes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (ditto) has authority over mobile devices.

Yep, they want to control your Google Maps.

The measure is buried in the Grow America Act amid other happy-sounding nonsense that will do absolutely nothing whatsoever to “grow America” and will, almost certainly, make life worse, because that’s the wildly expansive government championed by this administration does.

This new authority would give NHTSA the power to regulate, restrict, and order changes to individual smartphone apps by classifying them as motor vehicle equipment.

The problem in search of a solution is this idea that people using apps for navigation, rather than expensive stand-alone or built-in GPS systems, are uniquely dangerous on the road. Are they? Why? Is there proof of a problem? If so, why do the Feds need to flex their muscles rather than leaving the matter to the states?

The NY Times tells us that the measure already has the support of the auto manufacturers. You know: the same people who want to sell you expensive built-in navigation systems. No conflict there. And, of course, the same safety Nazis that swaddle us in useless bike helmets and protect us from the terrifying threat of opening the lid of a modern washing machine mid-cycle are totally behind this.

If there is a proven problem with mobile navigation systems–one that makes them somehow significantly more dangerous than your average Garmin or TomTom–then the states can amend their anti-texting laws to include any kind of mobile use in a moving (not a stationary) vehicle. Giving the USDOT power over mobile applications, however, is madness.

The Dirty Little Secret About Ellen’s Oscar Selfie

You know, this one:

It was a wacky, seemingly spontaneous moment in which Ellen and a bunch of stars took a selfie, and then she urged people to make it the most retweeted photo ever.

And they did! I think it got almost 3 million retweets. That’s the only reason I even know about: it was all over Twitter.

Yeah, that was totally a bought-and-paid-for ad by Samsung for the Galaxy Note 3. And if you retweeted or shared it, you were doing a little unpaid marketing for Samsung. Congratulations!

Samsung spent about $20 million in a promotional deal with ABC, which included featuring the device during the broadcast. They even had their people at the rehearsals teaching Ellen how to use it. It worked, too: Samsung was being mentioned 900 times a minute on Twitter during the broadcast.

Did the stars in the photograph even know they were part of some tacky product placement stunt? If they did, would they have cared?

Try to keep this image in mind next time you hear some celebrity blathering on about freedom of expression or artistic integrity. In the end, entertainment is always about the almighty dollar. That’s not a problem, mind you: I write for a living and expect to be paid. But the pretense that it’s All About The Craft wears thin.

Pudding Monsters [App o the Mornin’]

Cut the Rope is one of the best and most successful mobile games to date, with over 100 million downloads and a shelf of awards. So when the Russian team at ZeptoLabs did a follow-up to their hit franchise, gamers paid attention.

Pudding Monsters (iOS/Android: $1) are little blobs of jello that slide around on a chess-like board. (As with another good game–Pudding Panic–“pudding” is used in the more European sense of “dessert.”) Each blob occupies one square, and can move along the rank or file by simply swiping them in the direction you want them to travel.

One problem: if there isn’t something else on the board to stop them, they’ll shoot right off the edge and the puzzle is lost. If they hit an object, they stop. If they hit another monster, they fuse with it. The goal is to get all of the blobs 1) fused and 2) covering all three stars on the board.

It’s not usually too hard to slide the monsters until they blend, but sliding them so that the last one merges with the whole monster-blob on top of the third and final star is a bit more tricky. Along the way, new kinds of monster-blobs are introduced, including “frozen” blobs that need to activated, green blobs who leave a slime trail which allows other to stick rather than shooting off the end of the board, blobless eyes who need to be reunited with their blobs, and so on.

There are 75 levels spread over 3 worlds, with more levels coming. As sliding puzzles go, this is a lot of fun with a cute art style and a moderate challenge level. Is Pudding Monsters the next Cut the Rope? Probably not, but it’s very very good and a worthy follow-up that shows Zepto still has some tricks in their bag.

Content issues: None.

Tetrobot [App o the Mornin’]

Tetrobot and Co. (<PC/Mac: $12, Android/iOS: forthcoming) is a sequel to Blocks That Matter, a puzzler featuring a high-tech drilling robot called Tetrobot. (You can download a free computer demo of Blocks That Matter at swingswingsubmarine.com, or buy the whole game for $5.)

The sequel (confusingly) focuses not on Tetrobot but Psychobot, a helpful little flying robot tasked with repairing Tetrobot.

The Psychobot functions a bit differently, absorbing blocks and spitting them out to solve puzzles. Its job is to float through the inside of a machine removing obstacles and getting things running again. Psychobot is not too clever, however, and needs help finding his way in order to trigger an electric fence, flick a switch to open a gate, or throw a block to remove a hazard. 

The game shows a 2D cross section of the environment, featuring boxes, switches, levers, tunnels, electrical fields, and other odds and ends. The levels are more sizable than your typical 2D puzzler, requiring the gamer to trigger multiple events on various screens. This adds greatly to the complexity level for perfect, 3-star completion of each level. It’s possible to “complete” a level quite quickly, but doing so with a perfect score can be a real mind-scrambler.

The real challenge comes from manipulating blocks with different properties. Some are sticky, some float, some grasp, some fall, and so on. By stacking and throwing blocks, you trigger events that lock/unlock/alter the environment. As the game goes on, you’ll find yourself shot through water, transported across the map, flying through goop, and dealing with other events and distractions.

It’s all buoyed by a charming animation for the little robot and endlessly clever level design. As puzzlers go, it’s more complex than most, but allows simple ways through for people satisfied with only collecting one or two stars. You, of course, will not be so satisfied, so expect a solid challenge.

Content: No concerns. Rated: E

Technology Turned Against Kiev Protestors

Kiev is exploding in protests as Ukraine’s president attempts to move the country away from EU membership and closer into the Russian orbit.

On Tuesday, anyone in the vicinity of the protests received the following message on their phones: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.”

Registered.

Got that?

We know who you are now and you can expect a visit.

I knew the tech existed, but the idea of it being deployed in such a blatantly totalitarian and oppressive way still shocks.  Anyone with an active cellphone in that area is identified, complete with a list of contacts and just about everything else anyone needs to know. They don’t even need to be participating in the protest. Just nearby.

Okay, now imagine this going on here, with the full power of the NSA brought to bear on citizens, and you’ll understand why some of us are getting a little jumpy.

Protest leaders said the authorities seemed to be giving the more radical protesters free rein while going out of their way to frighten more moderate ones, particularly with the threatening text messages sent on Tuesday.

The phrasing of the message, about participating in a “mass disturbance,” echoed language in a new law making it a crime to participate in a protest deemed violent. The law took effect on Tuesday. And protesters were concerned that the government seemed to be using cutting-edge technology from the advertising industry to pinpoint people for political profiling.

Three cellphone companies in Ukraine — Kyivstar, MTS and Life — denied that they had provided the location data to the government or had sent the text messages, the newspaper Ukrainskaya Pravda reported. Kyivstar suggested that it was instead the work of a “pirate” cellphone tower set up in the area.

The messages appeared to have little effect. Three hours after they were sent, riot police officers pushed past barricades of burned buses at that site and were met by a crowd of protesters in ski masks and bicycle helmets, carrying sticks and ready to fight.

The police fired plastic bullets and threw stun grenades. They pressed as far as a cobblestone-throwing catapult built by protesters the day before and dismantled it before retreating.

In case you missed that, they’re building catapults in Kiev.

 

Pocket Trains [App o the Mornin’]

Pocket Trains (Android/iOS: freemium) is insidious. It’s insanely addictive, just like NimbleBits’ previous games, Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes. Pocket Trains follows the formula of Pocket Planes, but does it even better. You begin the game with a simple map of Europe and a couple of major cities. These are connected by train tracks, with one train running on one set of tracks. As you earn more money, you can connect more cities, build more trains, establish new lines, and continually expand.

Money is earned by hauling freight from city to city. Freight that goes further, or has a higher value cargo, generates more gold. You can also pick up crates and bucks. Crates have train parts in them: get enough parts and you can build a new train. There are quite a few train models, and you’ll want to upgrade as you go to increase your distance, fuel load, and hauling capacity. Bucks are used to uncrate the train parts and expand stations to hold more freight.

As you begin to sprawl across first the map of Europe, and then the entire world, you find yourself relaying freight from one train to another. A high-value cargo may have to go from Moscow to San Francisco through a series of cities and train lines, switching three or four times before you can earn the money for completing delivery. Managing these lines and maximizing profits it a key part of the game.

You can expand to North and South America, Asia, and Africa, but each new region costs 50,000 gold, and the price for each new train line increases each time you build one. By the time you gave 12 trains running, you can be paying almost 40,000 gold for each new line.

Pocket Trains is a classic casual maintenance game, and that’s the key to its fun-factor. You can check in a few times a day or once a week, spend 5 or 10 minutes directing your trains, or half and hour messing with loads, and then forget about it. The trains rack up their miles, earn their gold, and refuel without any fuss, so you can focus on just managing and expanding the lines.

The game is free, but you can purchase bucks starting at $1 for 100 bucks and going up from there, as well as crates. This allows you move the game along faster, but I’ve expanded to a dozen lines on four continents and never spent a dime, so it’s possible to have a completely free experience if you’re patient.

As with all NimbleBits product, the visuals use a colorful, blocky 16-bit style, with little people on the train platforms and in the passenger cars. It’s quite a charming package, and a good casual game for people who just like to check in and fiddle with things for a few minutes throughout the day.

The Rivals For Catan [App o’ the Mornin’]

Klaus Teuber’s two-player version of Settlers of Catan went through a much needed streamlining and revision a couple years ago, creating a more balanced, user-friendly game.

The Rivals for Catan (USM, iOS: $4) uses the themes and setting of Catan, such as quasi-medieval village life; gathering rock, wood, wool, gold, brick, and stone; and spending it on upgrades. Instead of a map, however, each player has a town center made of cards in front of him, and begins with two settlements and a stretch of road. By drawing cards and spending resources, the player expands the road, adds and upgrades settlements, and constructs specialty items, such as buildings or heroes, that add resource bonuses or point advantages. The goal is to build enough to reach a set number of victory points.

In the basic game, 7 victory points is the win limit, but The Rivals For Catan app includes all of the special card sets, adding new kinds of buildings that match various Eras: Gold, Progress, and Turmoil. These add subtle strategic changes and have a way of making the game, which is a really a face for points at its basic level, into a more interactive and cut-throat affair.

If you’ve played the original tabletop game, know this much: the app is 100% faithful recreation for the iPad, making good use of the game space. Your town center and cards are visible at all times, and you can toggle to see your opponent’s lay out with one tap. It takes a few minutes to get the hand of the gameflow and the way the interface handles resources by turning cards (thus mimicking the original), but after a tutorial and a few turns, the controls become quite natural.

Rivals includes hotseat and internet play (including GameCenter player matching), which is a welcome treat for those who don’t care for AI opponents. It’s a straightforward and clean adaptation of a fun little addition to the Catan family.