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.

Hand of Fate [Fun Friday]

The rise of indie game development leads to all kinds of strange and fascinating mashups of game genres that no major studio would ever put together. There’s a good reason for that: shoving deckbuilding, choose-your-own-adventure, and arena combat into one game will result in a hot mess unless it’s done with great skill. IMG_3061-1.JPG

Well, the folks at Defiant have that skill, because Hand of Fate (Defiant Development, Teens and up, Xbox One/PS4/PC/Mac: $25) all three of those things in one package, and it’s a blast.

The game shifts between a card-playing engine and third-person combat. You sit across the table from a dealer who controls the game. He places cards on the table to form the steps through a dungeon, with different cards triggering encounters and attacks. In addition, he’ll play cards to throw some extra challenges your way, and deal out a kind of three-card monty that can increase or diminish your chances for success.

Meanwhile, you have your own deck, which grows as you go through different levels and defeat a sequence of bosses. This deck can be customized at the outset of each game, allowing you tailor your approach. Cards feature different game elements that are drawn, such as food and health to keep you going, weapons and armor, and other features. As you progress through the story, your character gains more sophisticated attacks and better equipment to meet the challenges of increasingly fierce foes.

Different stages of your journey are accompanied by text descriptions of characters or events, allowing you to choose an action than can draw you deeper into an side adventure, or just letting you trade for a special item.

The final major element in this strangely appealing soup is the combat engine. When it’s time to fight the battle indicate by the cards in play, the game drops into a respectable-looking 3D combat engine. The system plays like a simplified version of the Batman games, with turns, attacks, and blocks timed to counter a variety of monsters. Some might find this a jarring transition, but it really adds a bit of flavor and excitement to the card play, even if the encounters grow slightly repetitive in the long haul.

The total effect of all these elements is to draw the player into a randomly generated duel with a dungeon master and then bring that duel to life with combat and storytelling. It’s quite a neat feat.

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

Should We Be Panicking Over #NetNeutrality Rules?

No. Stop that already! We’re panicking entirely too quickly and too much about everything. Just relax, pour yourself a bourbon, watch some Rockford Files on Netflix, and chill the heck out.ball-419199_640

I wrote an analysis piece for the National Catholic Register about the FCC’s move to implement net neutrality rules which can be read here, before the FCC rules were made public. You can read those rules here if ambien isn’t doing the trick for you.

I’ve done a quick scan of the report and there were no real surprises. There’s going to be a lot of noise about “4oo pages of rules.” Wrong. It’s 8 pages of rules, 80 pages of conservative dissent (some I agree with, some I don’t), and the rest is history, precedent, justification, and the like.

The rules are simple: no paid prioritization, no blocking, no throttling.

I have no problem with any of that in theory. Libertarian-leaning conservatives who say there’s no danger to open internet, and thus no need for net neutrality, are all wet. The providers are functional monopolies for most consumers. The market alone cannot ensure the open internet. Anyone saying it can is engaging in a kind of quasi-religious free market fundamentalism, not rational thought.

However, the seizure of regulatory authority by the FCC, in particular the way they’re going about it, bothers me a lot. I’m far more worried about the ever-expanding power of the alphabet agencies than I am about having to wait for “Archer” to buffer.

For this reason, I have to oppose these regulations, even though I support the general goals of net neutrality. They are doing the right thing in the wrong way. And the way a thing is done matters.

Here’s an excerpt from my Register piece:

There is a line between what is desirable and what is possible within the limits of our government. Where legislators are failing, the FCC is attempting to step in, and in doing so they certainly appear to be exceeding their authority.

The current problem is “paid prioritization.” The internet service providers—represented in the public imagination by widely hated companies such as Comcast and Verizon—want to create tiers of service. This allows them to “throttle” internet speeds for high-bandwidth users. Throttling slows down the flow of data between a service and a user. In order to remove those limits so the data can flow at the highest possible speed, the service would have to pay.

The most obvious is example is Netflix. The popular video streaming service consumes approximately 34% of all internet bandwidth in North America. By comparison, superstore Amazon (which also streams music and movies) accounts for less than 3% of all bandwidth.

Last year, customers who watched Netflix through ISPs such as Comcast or Verizon saw their internet speeds throttled, leading to downgraded video quality, buffering delays, and interrupted service.

Read the whole thing. 

Ars compiled this selection of replies from opponents, which is notable most for 1) wingnuttery, 2) lies, 3) idiocy.

Everything in this statement from US Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) is utter nonsense:

“Ironically, this order will likely do nothing to address the fairness issues raised by Democrats and Internet activists. Rather, under the guise of keeping the Internet ‘free and open’, they simply advocated for an approach that allows Big Brother to step into the shoes of service providers. The government will regulate rates, create its own fast lanes, control the placement of content, and raise fees and taxes. If you like your service plan, you will not be able to keep it. The age of ObamaNet is upon us and I hope the government proves better at running a network than a website, but logic would seem to dictate that I not hold my breath.”

I have very real problems with what the FCC is doing, but we won’t address it by engaging in this kind of soundbite-driven, fear-mongering stupidity. Nothing in the rules would allow the government to “regulate rates, create its own fast lanes, control the placement of content, and raise fees and taxes.” The providers would need to be reclassified as utilities for those things to happen, and I can’t see how that could be done short of Congressional action.

The Democrats are attempting a power grab. The Republicans are responding like howling lunatics. Neither side represents the will of the people.

FORCEdraft: Make Yourself Write!

forceSome writers need to make daily word counts. These may be personal goals or professional assignments, but we have to make with the words whether or not they’re actually floating around in our heads waiting to spill out on the page (virtual or actual). Writer’s block is a luxury those who write for a living can’t afford, but it doesn’t make it any less of a challenge.

The internet is both the blessing and the curse to the writer. Research has never been easier. Reaching out to subjects for interviews, dropping in a few citations and statistics, firming up our grasp of a subject: the internet makes all of this easier.

And it also makes it much much harder. The computer exerts a powerful gravitational pull, and the internet is always there to lure you into a few minutes of email, social media, browsing, grazing, poking, and other fruitless ways to pass the time.

Sometimes, those distractions call for various tools and tricks. I use various timers to slice up my day into productive bits, but the siren song of RSS feeds, Facebook, Twitter, and general webbiness is always singing a sweet tune in my ear. I’ve tried various Google plugins to block services, but I always wind up disabling them after a little while.

FORCEdraft (browser or Windows: free) is stronger medicine. It offers a page to write on and nothing else, and then locks the rest of your computer until a specific goal is met. You can set a time limit or a word limit, and the program will not let you out until you meet it. Even CTRL-ALT-DEL won’t give you let you out. Nothing short of a reboot will end the session.

You can open it in a browser or download an EXE for Windows, but the program works about the same either way.

Even for a text editor (and I prefer working in pure TXT format) it’s a bare-bones program. There’s no spell check, right-click mouse functionality, hotkeys, or menu. There’s no alarm when you hit your limit, and no onscreen timer or word count. You can choose where to save and what to to name the file. A couple of more features would make it a stronger program.

For those who just want a plain text editor, FORCEdraft can also be set to exit whenever you want. There are, however, plenty of better PC text editors and browser editors out there. FORCEdraft does one thing: it makes you write and do nothing else. That may be just the medicine you need to get things done.

Jack Lumber [App o the Mornin’]

Jack Lumber hates trees, and he has a good reason: trees killed his beloved granny. Now, Jack has sworn everlasting vengeance against all forms of lumber. He has an axe, he has a mission, and he has a woodchip on his shoulder.

Jack’s tale of vengeance forms the extremely silly connective tissue for this funny, polished riff on the slicing game genre pioneered by Fruit Ninja. In fact, there’s far more to Jack Lumber (PC/Mac: about $8; iOS/Android: $4) than just dexterous slicing. The visuals are terrific, with a sharp cartoon quality and some extremely funny touches. (Fruit Ninja was fun, but nobody would ever accuse it of being funny.)

For example, there is a completely random animal-collecting element which allows you to stack up critters in your log cabin as you encounter them in the game itself. Why is it there? Who knows. They don’t serve any purpose other than a bit of comic relief in between levels. It’s like asking why someone randomly shouts “PLAID” when you make a cut. Why? Because it’s funny.

Each level begins with logs of various shapes and sizes tossed in the air. When you touch the screen, time slows down. You need to trace a single line through the ends of each log, cutting them crosswise. When you lift your finger, the cuts execute all at once. If you missed a log, traced over a side rather than an end, hit an animal, or didn’t cut through every single endpoint, you’re penalized. Enough penalties and you fail the level.

Sometimes you need to pass through the same log multiple times to use it, or break bottles of syrup (purchased back at your cabin) in order to slow down time. There’s a lot less luck involved than in most slicing games. You really need to examine the screen quickly and find the fastest and most effective way through each log. This makes the game more like a rapid maze, since if you take a wrong “turn” with your finger, you’ll mess up.

Good humor, strong production values, and a dexterity element that also requires quick thinking: Jack Lumber is a winner all the way through.

DuckTales Remastered [App o the Mornin’]

I’m too old to have any nostalgic memories of the classic DuckTales game, originally released in 1989 as a tie-in to a popular TV show. My children and I are, however, huge fans and collectors of Disney comics in general, and Duck comics in particular. The Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck books from artists/writers Carl Barks and Don Rosa are some of the best comics ever published, and the DuckTales show and game both used a lot of that material to great effect.

The original DuckTales game has become something of a legend. It may have started life as just another TV tie-in product, but once Capcom got involved with the actual production, it became something more. The Mega Man team took over, and created one of the most beloved and fondly remembered platform games on the NES.

Now Capcom has revisited their classic in DuckTales Remastered (PC/Xbox/PS3/WiiU: $15), a completely faithful update of the original. The five levels from 1989 have been recreated, and two new levels added. These levels are expanded, however, with more areas, more secrets, and different patterns in the way enemies (particularly) boss appear.

The biggest change is in the production. The old 8-bit visuals have been updated to lush, colorful, handpainted graphics that really do the game and its multiple worlds justice. It uses 2D sprites on 3D backgrounds to add depth to each environment. For those who want some of that old retro feel, there’s a toggle to switch back and forth between the new and the old visuals. New cut scenes have been added with full voice support, including the great Alan Young (now 93 years old and best remembered as Wilbur on Mr. Ed), the only man to ever voice Scrooge McDuck.

The gameplay is top-notch. It would be easiest to just say it’s a straight platformer, with lots of jumping and fighting and careful timing, but it’s more than that. Scrooge’s cane can be either a weapon for bashing enemies or a pogo stick for reaching high places. Using your cane to bouncing across the heads of a series of Beagle Boys, knocking them out without ever touching the ground, it just one of those classic game moments resurrected by DuckTales Remastered. It’s a bit sure, but loads of fun.

Content: Rated E for Everyone. Lots of bouncing on enemies and other genial low-level cartoon violence.

Bumpy Road [App o the Mornin’]

Bumpy Road (iOS/Mac/PC: $3) is the sophomore effort from the creators of Kosmo Spin, and it has a delightful aesthetic, with a muted but eye-catching color palette and charming art. It’s a look that works perfectly for game about an older couple out for a Sunday drive on a corduroy road past windmills and impossibly narrow houses.

The gameplay is just as interesting as the visual element. Bumpy Road uses a novel mechanic to create a twist on the 2D platforming, move-to-the-right genre that has thrived on mobile touch devices. In this case, you don’t control the car, which moves at a steady pace, but the road itself, which is comprised of a series of little bumps. Touching the road raises it a little bit. Touch behind the car to create a hill that makes the car go faster. Touch in front of it to create a hill that slows the car down. Touch beneath it to make the car hop.

It’s as simple as that. The levels consist of multiple platforms and occasional water hazards, with minor variations for the two gameplay modes. In Evergreen Ride, you need to go as far as possible without falling into one of the water hazards. The trip is endless, with little powerups found along the way to close traps and allow you to focus on gathering items to improve your final time. There are no traps in Sunday Trip mode, so the goal is to get to a finish line as fast as possible by grabbing the accelerator powerups and avoiding the brake powerups. The result is a great little app, with a novel mechanic and engaging gameplay.

The Stanley Parable [App o’ the Mornin’]

The Stanley Parable (PC/Mac: $15, free demo available) is one of the most peculiar, unusual, and daring games to come down the pike in a long, long time.

Where Papers Please has a clear gameplay element, The Stanley Parable has none. Like Dear Esther, it’s part of the new genre of “first-person walkers” in which things happen and story unfolds simply by walking through a game world. In Dear Esther, walking around an island triggered fragmentary story elements that eventually coalesced into a narrative. It was an interesting experiment, but ultimately unsatisfying.

The Stanley Parable makes Dear Esther look like a Dick and Jane book. It is unrelentingly clever, overflowing with ideas, jokes, hairpin mood shifts, and narrative jolts, all of it adding up to a striking meta-commentary on the process of playing games.

The titular character is an office drone who sits at his desk looking at a monitor and punching a key whenever instructed. The tone recalls Terry Gilliam’s dystopian film Brazil, where humans are reduced to cogs in a mindless bureaucracy that exists only to perpetuate itself. Just like modern America.
Everything we know about him is explained by an omnipresent narrator, who alternately directs Stanley (you) what to do and explains what you’re doing. Sometimes he taunts, sometimes he tried to coax and teach, and sometimes he just goes mad. The narrator is one of the best-written, best-acted voices in any computer game since GLaDOS in Portal. With his light and soothing English accent, he sounds the way I imagined the voice of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

Since you never actually see Stanley (not even, as the narrator observes at one point, his feet), the narrator is the true main character: simultaneously your own voice and the voice of the game designer. It’s a frankly stunning bit of writing and performance that is at the center of the entire experience.

The game begins one morning as Stanley gets up from his desk for a meeting, only to find his entire office abandoned. Not a soul is in sight. He follows the prompts of the narrator and walks to the meeting room. He comes to two doors. The narrator directs him (you) to take the left door.

Of course, you take the right.

And The Stanley Parable is off. The most you ever do is punch a couple of buttons. You can’t run, jump, move objects, or interact with almost everything. All you can do is choose where to walk, and the odd button to push.

The result is a surreal choose-your-own-adventure in which you rehearse all the tropes of interactive entertainment, search for meaning, and try to understand just what’s going on in this world. There are many “endings,” including the most obvious “good” ending in which you emerge into the sunlight of a beautiful day, free of a totalitarian system that was created to crush your individuality.

Oddly enough, that’s the least interesting ending. I can’t say too much because it would spoil the surprise of what The Stanley Parable is attempting to do, but I can give you a small taste. At one point, the narrator is taunting you because your choices indicate you don’t like this game very much, and suddenly you find yourself in … Minecraft. Actually in the game Minecraft! And from there you travel down a hole and fine yourself in … Portal! (The Stanley Parable began as a Half-Life mod.)

The meta-commentary folds in on itself so many times it turns into a Chinese puzzle box, almost impossible to unfold in any rational sense. In the course of unfolding, the game actually falls prey to the cliches its attempting to mock, creating even more folds in the meta-commentary.

It’s a dazzling display of narrative chutzpah, and the most potent commentary on the medium of gaming I’ve ever experience. It is not for everyone. Its “gamelessness” and in-jokes will put off any but real devotees of the medium. But for those who’ve been playing games a long time, it’s like a combination surrealist film and insightful essay all laid out in a game format that ask you to do little more than walk.

ToodleDo Task Manager [App o’ the Mornin’]

I’ve lost track of how many task managers I’ve tested over the past two years. I can’t say “all of them,” because task managers are as common as match-three games in the App Store and online, but I can say “all of the major ones, plus a dozen more.” Some I used longer than others. None ever really worked for me, until I found ToodleDo (web based: free with premium options; iOS/Android/Blackberry: about $3).

Choosing a task manager is like choosing a pair of shoes. You have to try on several to find one that fits. What works for me may not work for another. It depends upon what kind of tasks you’re managing, if you’re collaborating with others, how you prefer to enter tasks, what platforms you use, what kind of tags and sorting you need, and how you like to be notified.

This was what I needed the software do: track writing assignments, including those with multiple parts (subtasks such as interviews and research); manage school projects (no longer needed since I finished grad school); track a section of the magazine I edit; try to slide in non-assigned (“spec”) work so that I don’t keep putting it off; and synchronize all of it among four devices: iPad, iPhone, laptop, desktop. It does all these things very well.

ToodleDo is free to try right here. The mobile apps cost extra, and upgrades are available to add features. I paid $15 to get subtasks for a year, but after working with them I found I could live without them and just piece out the different sections of an assignment task-by-task.

The strength of the app is in its ease of entry, scheduling/priority options, and management features. You can add a task quickly just by typing in “Quick Add Task” field on the web, or the “Add Task” field on the app.  It will add the task without any other data, or you can open up a simple submenu to set priority level and due date/time, assign to a folder, choose a repeat option, add subtasks, and set a notification alarm.

Once created, tasks can be searched and sorted in myriad ways, grouped into folders (Home, Work, School, Projects, etc), assigned to a hotlist, re-prioritized, and more. You can organize a list of tasks just about any way you’d like.

I like the ease with which you can attach documents, links, and blocks of text for each task. If you look at the web version, you’ll find some nice extra features on the tabs at the top: Notes, Outlines (simple outlining software), and Lists (field entry for making different kinds of customizable lists).

It’s simple, flexible system: a list with sorting and scheduling features. It works very well with the GTD system and other productivity techniques. It may be less or more than you need. Some people need massive collaborative software and project tracking, others are fine with a simple TaskPaper app. Some want slick mobile graphics, clever layouts, and all kinds of graphical flourishes. I wanted a sorted, data-heavy, scheduling list, and that’s what ToodleDo gives me.