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June 27, 2016

 

10 Years In Charlotte

I've lived in Charlotte for a decade. It's pretty hard for me to believe that it's been that long. And that means this website and blog are now a decade old too. I made this site when I moved to Charlotte as a hobby, and as a way to record my time in Charlotte. Here is the first version of this site that I made. There have been a few revisions. I really didn't know much about web design back then, but I loved the challenge of trying new things. Here is my first ever blog post.

It truly is hard to believe that I've lived here for 10 years! It seems like just yesterday I was packing up a Uhaul with everything I owned and my Dad and I made the trip here.

In the ten years I've lived here I've met a lot of great friends, had some great adventures, and seen a lot of change in the city. Charlotte really is a great city, and it's grown a lot since I've lived here. The skyline of uptown has changed tremendously. There have been ups and downs … the recession in 2008 was a huge surprise and a setback; the banks did some restructuring but are still a big part of the economy; the opening of the Whitewater Center; the construction of several large skyscrapers down town as well as the BB&T Ballpark; Interstate 485 was finally completed; the first line on the light rail was completed (I've ridden on it, it's nice); The Democratic National convention 4 years ago; just to name a few.

For eight of the ten years I've lived here I worked for Habitat for Humanity Charlotte. The first couple years it was through the AmeriCorps program (a national service program similar to the Peace Corps; in fact, both were the idea of Sargent Shriver). I stayed with Habitat Charlotte working in a lot of different ways: as a Construction Crew leader on New Construction homes, and foreclosed homes after the recession hit, and doing some more unusual things such as selling Christmas Trees as a fundraiser, or driving the largest commercial truck you can drive without a CDL across the state to pick up a load of water heaters from Camp LeJune, or disassembling used cabinets from housing in Fort Bragg, all of which became a source of revenue for Habitat. Ultimately my hobby of website making opening a door to do that work professionally for Habitat. Several years ago I redesigned Habitat's main website and many of their supporting websites. You can see some examples on my portfolio site. It was Habitat that enabled me to explore web design as a career. I'll always be grateful for the experience I gained from Habitat, all of it, even the more unusual stuff.

These ten years have come and gone so quickly. It reminds me once again that life is a precious gift. You really have to make time to appreciate it, and appreciate the people in your life who make it precious.

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June 26, 2016

 

Spring 2016 Photos

I've added a new gallery to my Photos section (Photos from Spring 2016).

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June 15, 2016

 

Open Source is Awesome

Why do I love open source software so much? Because it enables creativity. You don't have to have access to expensive software licenses to unleash your inner creative potential. I've been a big fan of Open Source Software ever since I first discovered the original Open Office software in the early 2000s. Open Office was capable of nearly everything I needed from an office/productivity suite of tools, and was compatible with Microsoft formats.

I also feel that the more tools you know how to use, the more overall capability you have, thus encouraging intellectual curiosity, a trait that is sought after in the technology world. Just like a master carpenter tends to have many tools that they may use for a specific purpose, the more design tools you have experience with, the more well-rounded of a designer you will be.

you can do nearly anything with Open Source software! Working in the creative world, its truly difficult to get by without access to a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud (which until not too long ago was the Creative Suite) since it's the industry standard, and there are a lot of great features that make Adobe a logical choice. But if you're just interested in exploring your creativity, you can find an open source program that matches nearly every component of the Adobe Creative Cloud.

Office Software – don't waste you money buying MS Office. You can do just fine with Open Office software. Right now there are two prominent choices: Apache Open Office, and Libre Office (I prefer the latter). This is because the original Open Office software (which I have been using for over 10 years) which was developed by Sun Microsystems, was forked into two separate products when Oracle acquired Sun. The Document Foundation has been more actively developing Libre Office.

Web Design/Development – Coding – Now there are an abundance of execellent text editors to code with, as I have mentioned in a previous blog post. I recommend Notepad++ and Brackets for raw text editing greatness. If you need a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get editor, try out Kompozer or N/Vu (which is what I learned with).

Blender – 3D modeling, video editing—I was recently working on updating my portfolio site JhuffmanDesign.com and thought it might be cool to add a video background on the homepage. I needed a way to splice some video I made. I did a LOT of research, and it turns out Blender is the best open-source video editor out there. I also used the open-source VLC Player to edit the video format and save for web. VLC Player plays pretty much every video format imaginable. Blender is the best open-source video editor available, and VLC Player is the best open-source video player available.

IllustrationInkscape is one of my favorite tools. It's perfect for logo design, map making, wire-framing, or really any soft of vector-based graphic design. It's very similar to Adobe Illustrator although it does not come with any of Illustrators frills such as the many brushes. But if you're savvy, you can recreate those features using Inkscape. Try it out.

Photo EditingGIMP (or GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a great raster image editor. It's perfect for doing the kinds of things you would normally use PhotoShop. The tools have different names, and the UI is not as pretty as PhotoShop, but it gets the job done. GIMP can even do some things that PhotoShop cannot do, such as save nativity as multi-layered ICO files.

Desktop Publishing – if you've worked in desktop publishing then chances are you have used InDesign. It's great for putting together larger documents with different page layouts, importing images files, etc. Scribus is the open-source equivalent of InDesign, it's what you use to pull it all together.

You don't have to spend a dime to have all the tools you need to explore your creativity! Read about more Open Source Software tools here.

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June 1, 2016

 

My Favorite This American Life Stories

I've been listening to This American Life for well over a decade. I feel that many of the stories I've heard over the years have enriched my life.

Here is a collection of some of my favorite TAL stories from over the years.

Customer Service Crisis

For me it all started when I was listening to a story on my way home and the story was so captivating that I found myself sitting in my car waiting for it to end – I was having what you'll often hear NPR anchors playfully refer to as a “driveway moment” in their pledge weeks. The story that caught my attention was one an a producer of the show experienced, the dilemma of trying to resolve an inaccurate charge on her phone bill. If you've ever had a frustrating experience with customer support with any company you'll enjoy this story.

Time Travel

A man spends a lifetime pursuing time travel. This story tugs at my heart. It's the story of a boy inspired by the Orson Wells The Time Machine who loved his father so much, he spent his entire life perusing Time Travel; becoming an established physicist.

Unexpected Adventures

This is probably one of the stories I found the most entertaining, simply because of the absurdity of the story. It follows the unplanned adventures of a young American business man who accidently finds himself in a foreign prison, where he finds himself MCing a talent night put on by the other inmates, and winning a poetry contest.

Loosing Faith and Finding it Again

This is the story of an evangelical preacher, who at the height of his success had a crisis of faith and after huge setbacks, re-found his faith and started a new community.

Shipwrecked in the Middle of a Major Metropolis

A teenage Russian immigrant to Brooklyn finds himself alone stranded on an island in the middle of New York City, and makes the most of it.

What Happens When Teachers Go To Detention

In NYC, if you're a teacher you could spend a year in detention if you're not careful. This story is about the infamous “rubber room” of the NYC School System.

If you appreciate This American Life as much as I do, you should consider making a donation!

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May 18, 2016

 

Cutting the Cord

Cable subscriptions are becoming somewhat like video rental store memberships—a relic of the past. (RIP Blockbuster, Hollywood Video and Video World)

I've finally taken the plunge and cut my cable subscription. I was a cable subscriber, but after persistent price jumps it just didn't seem like a value.

I was a little apprehensive to give up cable, but with devices like Roku and Apple TV, and online options like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, and Sling TV, it's a lot easier to cut the cord. All you need is a decent internet connection. TV is now more accessible than ever, leaving cable boxes and subscriptions in the dust. The key is getting the right set of apps to suit your needs.

For me, Netflix is the best entertainment app, having overall the best selection of shows. And there are no commercials. Netflix also offers a great selection of originals, with shows like Orange is the New Black, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe television shows such as Jessica Jones and Daredevil. They keep coming out with new shows that look great, and they are not afraid to take risks on par with HBO. I'm really looking forward to the re-imagined Voltron, and the 80s supernatural mystery Stranger Things.

Speaking of HBO, the HBO Now service makes it much easier to give up the relationship with your high-maintenance cable provider.

Hulu seems to have the best selection of shows you'd find from networks, and also a decent library of films. Hulu also now offers a commercial free option similar to Netflix, but it is somewhat more expensive.

Sling TV offers live television for only $20 a month that includes some of the best channels you'd find on cable (TBS, AMC, Comedy Central, TNT, CNN, ESPN, etc). For me, this was what really made cutting my cable subscription seem like a no-brainer. Sling allows you to add on some extra channels a-la-carte style if you're intersted.

Comparing costs. At first cable will try to sweet talk you with a cheap monthly cost. But after a time they often raise their rates, and may not make it clear what the price will be after the promotional period. A full cable subscription can cost well over $100. Whereas with streaming apps (and a cheap antenna for local over-the-air broadcasts) you can spend a lot less, even cut your costs by half.

Typical cable subscription: $120ish/month (typical price after promo period)

Cutting the cord: Hulu $12 (no commercial plan) + Netflix $10 + HBO Now $15 + Sling $20 = $57/month

And since you're using technology like your smartphone, you can access your content pretty much anywhere. The best thing about these services is that you can turn them on and off whenever you want, so no need for uncertain contracts, or glitchy cable boxes.

I'm really excited that Google Fiber is coming to Charlotte, and for the competition this forces upon the internet providers. I've already noticed that local internet providers are offering big upgrades in internet speed for free. Competition is always a good thing.


There are a lot of cross overs between Hulu and Netflix, such as: every Star Trek series, Firefly, Parks and Rec, etc. But the excellent original content on Netflix, plus the amount of shows that are exclusive to Hulu make it easy to consider having both.

Amazon Prime exclusive shows: Catastrophe, The Man in the High Castle, Orphan Black, Mr Robot, older HBO shows, Downton Abbey

Hulu exclusive shows: Brooklyn Nine Nine, Seinfield, Party Down,

Netflix exclusive shows: Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Luke Cage, Orange is the New Black, Master of None, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Stranger Things

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April 27, 2016

 

The Rise of Cinematic Universes

In recent years there has been an increase in cinematic universes—collections of films that share the same world. Shared fictional universes have been existed in literature throughout history. For example: J.R.R. Tolkien's stories all exist in the world of Middle Earth.

Although technically shared cinematic universes have been around for some time, with Godzilla vs King King in the 1960s, and even earlier with Universal's Monster movie films, it was Disney and Marvel that really brought to life the first epic connected universe of films, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Unfortunately Marvel and Disney can't unite all of the vast catalogue of Marvel characters. Any Marvel characters whose powers are derived from mutations fall under the domain of Fox.

Disney and Marvel are working with all of the non-Mutant Marvel characters in the Marvel catalogue, and in some cases non-mutant versions of characters (such as Quicksiver, who has appeared in both the X-men series, and the MCU). Marvel has worked a deal with Sony (who had exclusive rights to the characters in the Spiderman series) to bring Peter Parker into the MCU. His first appearance was in Captain America Cival War, the most recent Marvel Film.

Fox is also expanding the X-Men/Mutant cinematic universe, with the recent Deadpool spinoff and plans for films based on Gambit, in addition to a last stand-alone Wolverine film, and future X-Men films.

DC Shared Cinematic Universe—DC/Warner Brothers are trying to copy the success of Marvel/Disney with a shared cinematic universe of their own. This began with the Superman reboot Man of Steel.

Universal's Monsters—Universal is rebooting it's Monster series of films into a shared world of films.

Transformers/G.I.Joe/MASK/etc—There are rumors also that Hasbro is working on it's own cinematic universe, which would combine G.I. Joe with Transformers and MASK, etc.

Really with the popularity of cinematic universes lately, anything could happen. Patton Oswalt explains in this hilarious Parks and Rec rant.

Image of Milky Way from European Space Observatory | CC BY 4.0

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March 20, 2016

 

The Meaning of Maps

As I'm mentioned before, maps are something I truly love. I have spent hours looking over a maps, letting my imagination vicariously explore the worlds they depict. I would explore the large hard-cover Rand McNally world atlas I received as a child, and the map inserts that came periodically with issues of the National Geographic, and visitor maps I collected on the way out of a theme parks (to keep in mint condition).

I think maps are one of the most important innovations in human history. And like many creative mediums, maps can offer a lot of unique story telling qualities. The little details in a map are what can give it character. Maps can aid the creative process, giving depth and form for stories to unfold. J.R.R. Tolkien made maps of Middle Earth as he dreamed up the hobbit's adventures. I recently purchased a book of many of his illustrations, including detailed maps he used to create the Middle Earth landscape.

Some of my favorite projects have involved making maps, like this map of Purcell Park, or this map of Uptown Charlotte, or this map of the block where I used to live. When I was younger I would often spend time creating detailed maps of places I'd been, or imaginary worlds.

So I thought I'd put together a list of map-related websites that are really interesting...

The Map Shop

The first link I have to include is Charlotte's very own Map Shop. The Map Shop is a Charlotte-based map store that I first discovered many years ago, before I'd ever considered living in Charlotte. It's business is mostly online, and it' website is you might say, fairly antique, but it has a really impressive selection of maps available for purchase. If you're lucky enough to live in Charlotte, and are a map-enthusiast, you owe yourself a trip to the Map Shop. It's practically a museum of maps. If you're planning a trip abroad, you should check out their selection of foreign maps and travel guides.

Midtown Manhattan

Of my collection of maps, the one that has meant the most to me, has been the map of Midtown Manhattan that I received when I was very young. The isometric map contains unbelievable detail, right down to the phone booths and subway entrances. It went out of print in the mid 80s, but I recently found an online archive where you can download a very high rez copy. This was a very happy discovery after years of searching for other copies of this georgious map.

Online Westeros

Fans of Game of Thrones, a sprawling epic story set in fictional Westeros, rivals Middle Earth in complexity. It can be difficult to keep up with the multiple storylines, but thankfully fans have created a map that helps to keep up with the different story arcs.

8-Bit NYC (and other cities)

If you enjoy retro video games then you'll probably enjoy exploring the 8-bit version of New York City found here. It functions just like Googlge Maps, allowing you to zoom in with added detail. Other major cities have been added.

8-bit NYC - http://8bitcity.com/map#

GPS Art Map

My friend Robert recently emailed me a link to a GPS Artist's creations. By riding his bike around cities with a GPS tracker, he creates lines that produce an image. It's an unusual but very cool hobby that must take a lot of dedication.

E-Boy (the German pixel artists)

There is a map-like quality to the isometric creations of the German pixel artist trio known as eBoy. Their art recreates actual cities with retro video-game-inspired isometric illustrations, that are actually the result of hundreds of individually crafted images. Several large brands have called upon these unique artists. I ordered the NYC poster years ago.

Theme Parks

I've always had a special place in my heart for theme park maps. When I was younger I would examine the maps of theme parks for hours. I had quite a collection. It was a way for me to relive the experience of being there. This site contains lots of retro themepark maps, including several of my favorite park, Bush Garden's Williamsburg.

Ghibli Land

Here is a unique theme park map for a park that does not even exist. It's a map of an imagined park based on the works of Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki. Check out the artist's Facebook page for more info, or read more about the map at Slashfilm.

Chicago if Frank Lloyd Wright had designed it

Imagine if Frank Lloyd Wright had created a map of Chicago. That's exactly what inspired Max Roberts when he created his map of Chicago. Robert's work includes many cities around the world, using various techniques.

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March 14, 2016

 

The Biggest Apple

The ultra high definition photo (at 360Gigapixels.com/nyc-skyline-photo-panorama/) of New York City should blow your mind!

The 360 degree panoramic shot from the top of the empire state building is of such high resolution you can see virtually every square inch of the city that never sleeps.

The detail is startling. You can see with decent clarity people standing in front of the Statue of Liberty, or the iconic Parachute Jump ride at Coney Island. Coney Island is at the very bottom of Brooklyn, touching the Atlantic Ocean. For some perspective, the Parachute Jump ride is over 15 miles from Midtown Manhattan! See the Google satellite image below to appreciate the distance.

Google satellite image detailing the distance from the top of the Empire State Building to locations shown in images above.

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March 13, 2016

 

10 Cloverfield Lane Review

Well I just saw the Cloverfield Sequel. 10 Cloverfield Lane is an excellent sci-fi/psychological thriller. I think it's a superior film to the original Cloverfield in many ways. This is thanks to a great story, and excellent acting. The best thing about this new film is that it opens the door for more films each with their own spin on the disaster genre. Cloverfield is now a brand.

(Warning: movie spoilers follow)

Most of the film takes place in a survivalist bunker, where Howard (played by John Goodman) an extremely paranoid middle-age man, has prepared for a major attack. The bunker is also occupied by two younger survivors who are not exactly free to leave: Michelle (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who has just woken from a car crash, and Emmet (played by John Gallagher), who as it turns out, chose to be in the bunker after seeing some of the attacks as they began.

My wishes for the character of Howard to have a connection to Super 8 didn't really pan out, and Howard actually turned out to be a far more disturbing character than I expected. And that's ok, because it's what makes this movie a nail-bitter. He really is the monster of the movie, a much more terrifying monster than Clover in the original film, or the other terrors that lurk near 10 Cloverfield Lane. It's Mary Elisabeth Winstead who really steals the show, as a very resourceful hostage plotting her survival. I found myself en the edge of my seat almost all of the movie while she dealt with the terrors of being a captive in Howard's world. John Gallagher was also really good in his supporting role. You feel bad for him, knowing he's been duped by the mad Howard, and he pays such a price due to Howard's cruelty.

Some reviewers/commentors online seem to be concerned that there is little connection between the two films. In reality there was never supposed to be a lot of connection, or it was never meant to be explicitly clear. But there actually are pretty clear connections – especially if you pay attention to the alternate reality online games that connect the two films. In the original Cloverfield it is revealed that the character Rob was going off to Japan to work for a company that was in some way connected to a mysterious Japanese conglomerate named Tagruato. The alternate reality games reveal over time that the company had made a significant discovery at one of its deep sea drilling stations, which could be assumed to be instigating the events in both films. In 10 Cloverfield Lane, there is a brief moment where the character Michelle stumbles onto some correspondence from Tagruato to Howard, who was at one point their employee after a stint in the US Navy. That aside, in the film there are mentions to attacks happening on the eastern sea board, which could be the attacks from the original film. Not to mention, the overall theme is very similar: Unknown supernatural/alien forces are wreaking havoc on society.

It's interesting that the director Dan Tractenberg had previously made the well-regarded Portal fan film, as so much of the Cloverfield franchise is aesthetically similar to the Half-Life franchise. There is definitely room for a cross-over.

Ironic movie trivia: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who played John McClane's daughter in the recent Die Hard films, gets her own turn finding out what a TV dinner feels like as she navigates the air vents of the bunker.

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March 9, 2016

 

Task Management Tools

One of the most difficult things to do in the creative world is to find a way to organize all of your tasks. There are lots of techniques and applications available, and I have tried quite a few (using post its, creating documents with lists, setting things a calendar appointments,) but it's hard to find one solution that covers all the bases. So instead I use a handful of different apps for different purposes. Here are a couple that I like.

One of the first web-based task list apps I ever tried was The Big Pic (wwww.TheBigPic.com). The interface, which uses gumball storage system, is simple and effective. It's a very visual way to organize projects. The downside is that it runs in flash, so it's desktop only. And considering that Flash is all but a dead technology, and there are other mobile friendly and free options now, I really can't recommend The Big Pic any longer. So instead, I'll recommend …

Google Keep

After trying The Big Pic, I've discovered a similar and better alternative that comes as part of Google's product-line. Google Keep allows you to create color-coded tiles, much like post-its, and also offers a check list function. It's a great general To-Do application. It comes standard with Android as an app, but is not available as an app for iOS (still you can simply save it as a web-page on your iOS home screen and treat it like an app). You can also tag the tiles with a theme – for example: “Beach Trip 2015”. Then when you view only tiles with a certain tag, it' a great way to organize you're projects.

Google Keep is great for the basic stuff, but if you need a task manager with a little more depth I've found two other options that I think offer quite a lot. And since I've used The Big Pic and Google Keep to plan for past vacations, so I thought I'd try out these two new apps to plan this year's upcoming vacation.

ToDoist

ToDoist is a great tool for creating in-depth check lists. The app lets you easily create projects that contain lists, and by hitting the control and left or right keys, you can nest lists within lists, which provides a great way to organize components of a project. The interface is very clean and simple. The app lets you set due dates/reminders so you'll get emails reminding you when tasks are due. The paid version allows for collaboration and added storage for files. Overall, its a great option for managing projects.

Trello

Trello is looking like my favorite overall task manager lately. Like Google Keep and The Big Pic, Trello provides a very visual format for organizing information, it being based on Toyota's Kanban style of task management. Tasks are organized as cards on lists, which are then organized into projects. Note: Trello is from the same people who created Stack Overflow, one of the best web development question and answer boards out there.

Both ToDoist and Trello are great task management applications, and both offer free basic accounts, are availabe as apps, and the ability to share with other users (though, with ToDoist you'll have to pay for that feature). If you prefer clean tidy lists, then you may prefer ToDoist. If you're more of a visual person, then you may prefer to use Trello. The only way to know for sure is to try one out.

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