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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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March 6, 2016

 

Recent Video Games I've Been Playing (... or thinking about playing)

In recent years, there has been a big jump in indie video game development, thanks in part to video game marketplaces like Nintendo's eShop and Valve's Steam distribution service. More developers are joining the scene, producing gems like Cave Story that show that a simple concept and unique story can create a very enjoyable game.

Warp

Warp is a terribly funny top-down sci-fi adventure where you take on the role of an adorable little alien who has the fantastic ability to warp himself a short distance through walls into various containers such as barrels, pipes, and even human beings. You also have the ability to optionally cause whichever container you might be inside of to explode. The plot is: you've been captured and taken to an underwater base controlled by humans where you've been experimented on and tortured until they accidentally let you loose. The game presents itself as a top-down puzzle, yet with 3d visuals (similar to the perspective of the Legend of Zelda – A Link Between World).

Available on Xbox, Playstation and Steam.

Downwell

Downwell is a very creepy yet ingenious 8-bit-style platformer having the unique characteristic of being a constant journey downwards. The objective is simple – you fall down a well and use your gunboots to eliminate enemies below you as you continue to plummet down the never-ending well. The website advertising the game is itself quite brilliant.

Available on iOS, Android and Steam.

PixelPeople

I got very addicted to PixelPeople after I first tried it a couple years ago. The game is very similar in concept to games like Harvest Moon and FarmTown, with elements of city building, and it features a beautifully simple and retro looking UI. It's very easy to get sucked into as you attempt to keep expanding your futuristic town, trying to level-up so you can unlock the next cool feature. The plot is somewhat unusual as you play the part of a mayor seemingly creating your own afterlife/universe where you also act as a genetic manipulator by splicing your clones with each other to generate new kinds of people with different skill sets. Half of the fun is just figuring out how to splice different kinds of clones together to create new kinds of people to enhance your world. I must admit, I love the isometric layout and colorful 8-bit video game-style graphics. The game developers continue to provide updates to the game pretty regularly. Best of all, it's free! Be warned, it can be very addicting.

Available on iOS and Android.

Alien Swarm

Alien Swarm, like Warp, is a top-down perspective game with nice 3D graphics. The game is free from Valve on Steam. It was created as a proof of concept from some aspiring game designers who now all have jobs at Valve. Up to four players will shoot their way through an alien envasion. To get started all you need is to sign up for a Steam account and then you can download the game. Imagine the aestetics of Half Life and the gameplay of SmashTV.

Available on Steam

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February 13, 2016

 

A Darker Super Hero

Lately we're starting to see some Marvel Super Heroes portrayed in a much darker light.

Last winter I got caught up in the Netflix show Jessica Jones, a series that is part of Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe. (The Marvel Cinematic Universe includes basically every character who is not a 'Mutant' – 20th Century Fox owns the rights to those Marvel Comics characters.) What really drew me to Jessica Jones was its very dark and disturbing subject matter, which by the way earned it a TV-MA rating. Wile dealing with characters who have super powers, it also dealt with mature themes of grief, addiction, isolation, jealously, abuse, etc. This makes the characters more realistic and interesting. I really loved the show (you can read more about what I thought about Jessica Jones here).

Jessica Jones was so good I decided I had to give Daredevil a try. And not surprisingly, Daredevil is also a great show, for many of the same reasons. The two shows are unique, but what they have in common is that they focus on one character (and their supporting friends) as they deal with every day life, while working to combat villains who may not be as obvious as Loki or Ultron, but are just as corrupt and dangerous.

A Man With Principle

The Catholic aspect of Daredevil makes the show a little more interesting for me personally. It adds an element of inner conflict for the hero, feeling the strain for doing what's ethically right verses doing what is necessary to stop injustice. Daredevil is the alter ego of Matt Murdock. Like Jessica Jones whose day job is being a private investigator, Matt also has a day job, which is being a Lawyer working for the disadvantaged in Hells Kitchen in NYC. Matt happens to be blind due to an accident in his childhood, but which also gave him incredible powers of sense with his other four senses, which he has kept a secret even from his closest friends.

Most of the time Murdock is trying to track down and stop the one responsible for increasing crime and injustice in his corner of the city. That person is Kingpin, a secretive and powerful figure who runs a world of greed and corruption. He seems to have infinite resources and control over the city, with many of those charged with protecting the city in his pocket. Ironically, he sees himself as a savior of the city, trying to rebuild it into a brighter tomorrow. But his means to an end lack any sort of humanity.

Murdock gets help from his friends, who while unaware of his secret, are also trying to find a way to bring to justice those who are inflicting pain and cruelty to the city. Being TV-MA, and being a full series, allows both Daredevil and Jessica Jones to dig deep into difficult subjects and relationships, such as: divorce, honestly, guilt, police corruption, the principals of traditional journalism caught in the economics of new technology, etc. This gives the comic based TV series a real edge over their feature film counterparts.

By the way, Netflix must realize they have struck gold with their deal with Disney to distribute these shows set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I also just watched Marvel's Deadpool – another surprisingly mature-themed depiction of comic book characters...

A Man Without Principles

When I think of the character of Wolverine, there is no actor other than Hugh Jackman that feels appropriate to portray him (when I was a kid, I thought no one other than Clint Eastwood could pull of the role). I now would say the same thing about Deadpool. Ryan Reynolds is as suited to play the part of Wade Wilson as Jackman is to play Logan.

The movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine was not great. But it can be regarded as the movie that spawned two great follow-ups, which in my opinion are the two best films in the X-men series – The Wolverine and Deadpool. The character of Deadpool/Wade Wilson was introduced in Origins, and Reynolds was one of the best parts of pretty lousy film. Luckily, the X-Men franchise rebounded with First Class and the events of Days of Future Past presumable undid the unfortunate fate of Wade Wilson in Origins, leaving his character available to be rebooted in a much better film.

Deadpool, like Dare Devil, also deals with injustice, but from a far less altruistic point of view. Unlike Matt Murdock, Wade Wilson does not strive to be a good guy. He accepts the fact that he's no hero, he just wants to make those that are a lot worse than him face justice, by any means necessary, and without remorse. But most importantly, he just wants to get his girl back. That's really the whole point of the movie: it's a love story, a very disturbed, bloody and violent story of true love. But the simplicity of his motivation is by no means a detraction to this film.

One of the things that makes Deadpool unique are the jokes. Most comics seem to have at least some level of humor, but nothing compares to Wade's incredible sarcastic and cynical sense of humor. This is especially possible because of another very unique characteristic of Deadpool – his character breaks the 'fourth wall' (ie he talks to the comic reader, or in this case, the movie-watching audience) throughout the film, which allows for another layer of jokes at the expense of not just the characters in this movie, or elsewhere in the X-Men universe, but even non-Fox-owned Marvel characters and DC Comic characters alike, or even figures of pop culture and current events. The jokes have to be good for this to work, and they really are fantastic.

Note: This is the first X-Men film not to have at least a cameo of Wolverine – although he gets one or two very funny mentions along the way.

This is the first R-Rated Marvel movie, and as such it's intended for a mature audience. And Deadpool does not pull any punches when it comes to the content of this film. The profanity, the nudity, the violence are all very gratuitous. Based on likely box office results, I doubt this will be the last R-Rated Marvel film.

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January 26, 2016

 

Easter Egg: The Leftovers & National Geographic

Spoiler Alert: First of all, if you don't know about HBO's The Leftovers, you have been missing out one very surreal and interesting show. Go watch. Then read this:

The Leftovers, the show, was co-created by one of the creators of LOST, so as you might expect there is the potential for lots of hidden clues. There are layers upon layers of plot lines revolving around the central characters. So it warrants many repeat viewing.

While re-watching episode seven, I happened to notice a very interesting coincidence: the issue of the National Geographic magazine that keeps appearing in the episode contains headlines that almost all pertain to events in the show.

Is it really a coincidence. (Is anything on The Leftovers really a coincidence?)

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January 25, 2016

 

Retro Gaming with the Raspberry Pi

As mentioned before, there are a lot of really cool things you can do with the recent proliferation of tiny computers. Specifically for me, the Raspberry Pi provides a perfect solution for retro-gaming.

For some time I was contemplating ways to create a simple, easy to use, inexpensive retro-gaming system – a way to play all the classic video games I grew up with. I had high hopes that the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console would accomplish this, and it did to a large extent, however it had some pretty glaring omissions when it came to game and system selection (For example: missing games like Castle of Illusion on Genesis, and the entire Atari catalog). And oddly, it seems to take eons for classic games to get released on the virtual platform, and even more strangely, when the updated Wii U system came out, they started all over again slowly re-releasing games. They should have dumped them all online much sooner for classic game enthusiasts to take the Virtual Console platform seriously, but I digress...

I considered several options to build my own system, but pretty much all them involved a computer running some version of Windows, making them a fairly costly option (unless I was willing to try buying a used computer on Ebay). Ultimately this would result in a fairly clunky experience, using multiple emulators to cover various video game machines, switching back and forth on an outdated version of Windows.

Then I stumbled on the Raspberry Pi, and the Retropie and Emulation Station programs. Retropie, along with Emulation Station, creates a very nice interface for playing classic games across multiple emulators. When you put them together you have one cost-effective, excellent platform for retro-gaming.

For less than $100 you can get a Pi, a couple USB controllers, a micro-USB charger, and a large capacity (not that it would be necessary) SD card and once configured you have the perfect retro-gaming platform. This Lifehacker article does a great job explaining the process of setting up a retro game console on the Raspberry Pi.

Should you choose, you can find all sorts of interesting cases and accessories for the Pi online, including control pads that look identical to the original NES control pads.

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January 24, 2016

 

Tiny Computers

Just a couple years ago a charitable organization was formed in the UK with the goal of creating small, affordable computers, to make hardware more accessible for those interested in learning to build/code. This movement just happens to coincide nicely with the development of smaller processors and electronic components needed for smart phones and all of the increasingly smaller devices in our lives, and with that comes a convenient surplus of available tiny hardware.

Their creation, the Raspberry Pi, is a credit card-sized circuit board with a CPU, RAM, and multiple ports for accessories – basically a computer the size of a deck of cards that costs under $30.

Since the original Raspberry Pi there have been several new releases with updated specifications. The Pi 2 includes a gig of RAM, and faster quad-core CPU. It's actually more powerful than the first computer I ever purchased, which ran windows 98, despite the fact that I could fit the Pi 2 in my pocket. Even at it's tiny size, the Pi can run older Windows, as this video demonstrates,. But it's much better suited for operating systems tailored to its configurations, such as the version of Linux released by the Raspberry Pi foundation.

There is a free slimmed-down version of Windows 10 (Windows 10 IoT Core) available for the Raspberry Pi 2, and paired with the Microsoft Hololens Augmented Reality headset allows you create some pretty amazing things. Learn more about Windows 10 IoT Core here, and get it here.

The Raspbery Pi Zero is a smaller version of the Pi with only the bare essentials, and not much larger than the circuit board itself. It's about the size of a thick business card and could easily fit in a wallet, yet it has the same computing power of the original Pi.

Initially intended as an educational device, the affordability and extensibility of the Raspberry Pi make it a device with nearly limitless possibilities. And with the ever growing Internet of Things (IoT) there will be increasingly more and more ways a Pi, or similar small computer, can enhance our lives.

Other folks have taken notice, and there is an increasing number of Raspberry Pi competitors out there, including C.H.I.P. which is basically a slimmed down Raspberry Pi that costs only $9. And just yessterday I read about a Kickstarter campaign for the Pine64, a more powerful competitor to the Raspberry Pi that runs on a 64 processor, has 4K video output, and can run Android OS, all on a board slightly bigger than the Pi 2, and only costing $15. It blew it's Kickstarter goal out of the water. So it's likely we'll continue to see an explosion of small computers supporting the IoT.

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January 23, 2016

 

A Cloverfield/Portal connection

While I was researching the still shocking revelation that a Cloverfield sequel was happening I realized that the director, Dan Trachtenberg, sounded kinda familiar. He used to co-host a couple podcasts I watched back in the late 2000s (the Totally Rad Show, and later GeekDrome), part of the Revision3 podcast network.

However, I was more interested to read that more recently he directed a pretty amazing short film based on the video game Portal. (Portal, along with Portal 2, happen to be my all-time favorite video games!) The film, Portal: No Escape, is excellent. It captures the essence of the game perfectly. This gives me some confidence that the Cloverfiled sequel could be very good. Check out Portal: No Escape.

Portal is set in the Half Life video game universe, and so this film based on Portal reminded me of the fan-films by the Purchase brothers, which are set during the events of Half Life. Produced for next to nothing, the two-part film series Escape from City 17 were so well done, they were mentioned on Valve's very own blog. Watch Part 1 and Part 2 of Escape from City 17.

I hope that this Cloverfield micro-budget sequel generates enough money so Bad Robot can make a feature length Portal film! There were conversations not long ago between Gabe Newel of Valve and Abrams about working on a film version of Portal and/or Half-Life. Watch this video of a convention between Abrams and Newel about video game and film possibilities. Perhaps there could be a cross-over between Cloverfield and Half-Life. The Cloverfield monster does seem very much like a creature you might encounter in Half Life, it would fit right in.

Play the game

I could go on and on about how awesome are Portal and Portal 2. If you consider yourself a casual gamer and have never experienced either, then I have to recommend trying out The Orange Box. For just $20 you can get the original Portal, Half-Life 2 (including Episodes 1 and 2), and Team Fortress. You can buy it through Valve's Steam video game service for PC and Mac, or pick up a copy for Xbox or Playstation. It really is the best deal in video game history.

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