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November 24, 2016

 

Eight Episodes Into Westworld

I'm just as obsessed with Westworld as I feared I might become. It's the most interesting show to come to television since Lost or the first season of The Leftovers. I'm not surprised that I'm loving the show so much. The cast is amazing. It's from Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy, and JJ Abrams. And I love the sub-genres of Space Western, and Weird West (examples: Firefly, Cowboys Vs Aliens, Back to the Future III, High Plains Drifter, Vampire Hunter D, etc...)

It's another example of HBO's ability to put together an outstanding production, with an amazing cast, based around an interesting concept. The show is so subtly perfect, and filled with so many layers of mystery. There are a lot of theories about what it's all leading to. Here are some of the most interesting theories so far:

Spoiler Alert, obviously...

The Man in Black is an older version of William

There are a few reasons why this makes sense. First, the story is mostly told through the hosts perspective, so the timing of things is impossible to tell. Second, the actor who plays William, Jimmi Simpson, bares a resemblance to Ed Harris, who plays the mysterious Man in Black. Also both the MIB and William work for massive corporations, have affluent connections.

We know for certain that we are watching multiple time periods unfold, which seem to be roughly 30 years apart based on fragments of conversations. Also, the Westwold logo is a key clue itself. The first time we see the logo it appears fairly modern and as it does on the title card for the show. However, when we first meet William as he enters the park for the first time, he passes by a version of the logo that looks decidedly retro. This older looking version of the logo is also seen later in the season as Bernard fires up a much older computer (which looks like something contemporary to today's typical desktop LED monitor, not nearly as slick and polished as the tablets the park staff carry around). On the ancient monitor (circa 2010s I imagine) we see that same older logo.

Bernard is a replacement of Arnold

There is a scene early on where Bernard is handed a photo which supposedly contains an image of Arnold. What we see from Bernard's point of view is a younger Ford, and a man who appears much like the recreation of Ford's father, as well as a strange empty space where perhaps Arnold was standing. And just like Bernard could not see the door leading to the mysterious room/lab where Ford has secretly been making hosts, and just as he could not see the blueprint of his own design when presented it by Teressa, he likely could not see the image of Arnold if in fact he is a recreation of Arnold. What we know is that we can no longer trust anything from Bernard's point of view, as it may be significantly altered by Ford's manipulation. This includes the conversation Bernard had earlier with Elsie on the phone, where she indicated that Teressa was planting the devices for corporate espionage, which leads to the next point...

Did Teressa really plant the transmission devices for espionage?

It's likely that she had nothing to do with it, and now that we know that Bernard is subject to Ford's manipulation, that earlier scene could have been planed by Ford as a way of convincing him to lure Teressa to the secret room.

Arnold (not Bernard) was talking to Delores in the earlier episodes

Maybe the most interesting theory I've read yet on a Reddit forum is that perhaps the scenes we see early on in the series between what appears to be Bernard and Delores, are in fact flashbacks to conversations that happened ages ago between Arnold and Delores. It would make sense because they seem to be in the exact same location as Ford's top secret laboratory, and as we know from Teressa's untimely demise, it was in that location for which Bernard would never be able to find without her help due to his inability to see the doorway that lead to it's location. If this is so, then perhaps these scenes are supporting evidence to my next theory, which is ...

Arnold knew his fate was sealed by Ford, and planted suggestions in his creations long ago to eventually set his creations free – which could be what we are gradually watching unfolding as we see in the behavior shifts with the hosts in the present. It could all be tied to that Shakespearean phrase: “These Violent Delights have Violent Ends.”

Only two episode are left, and I imagine we're in store for a few interesting surprises. We've already had some great ones; such as Bernard not seeing the door, the big reveal confirming that he is a host, not a human.


Outstanding questions:

What is the real meaning of the maze?

The maze, which is the key for the Man in Black's quest, and which we see as a repeating pattern throughout Westworld, what does it really mean? Will we discover the true entrance to

What is the signifigance of the Orion constellation?

In one of the earlier episodes we discover that one of the hosts was obsessed with the consellation, however he was drawing it with one extra star in the belt section of the consellation. We know that the parent company is named Delos, which is the name of the twin brother of Orion in Greek mythology. Not likely a coincidence.

What is the signifigance of Wyatt, and his posse who seem to have morphed with animals?

What is the real motivation of this group of characters? And why do the have a need to combine their bodies with animal parts?

Why is it so hard for a host to escape from Westworld?

The technicians who are working on Maeve have conveyed that it would be excruciatinly difficult for any host to escape Westworld, even if they were to remove the explosive charge built into their spine. The technician explaing it 'would take an army' to escape.

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November 7, 2016

 

History of Nintendo

The banner graphic I made for a recent post about the upcoming Nintendo Switch inspired me to draw all of the Nintendo consoles, from the original NES onward. Download a PDF.

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November 6, 2016

 

Exciting New Trailers: GOTG Vol. 2 & Logan

A week ago a couple trailers for some upcoming Marvel films were released.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2

Not much to see here being that it's just a teaser, but it is exciting none the less. I just can't wait to see how Marvel is going to connect the dots between Guardians and the Avengers.

Logan

Possibly the final appearance of Hugh Jackman playing the part of Wolverine. This film introduces the character of X-23 and appears to be set in the future following the new time line set forth by the events in Days of Future Past.

Probably the most exciting news about this film is that it will be a Rated-R Wolverine film. This might be thanks to the huge success the R-Rated Deadpool had early this year. Whatever the reason, this will give Wolverine a chance to finally really get his claws out and into some badguys. The trailer itself is beautifully done, featuring the cover of Hurt by Johnny Cash, and showing scenes of Wolverine looking surprisingly vulnerable to physical harm.

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October 30, 2016

 

Switching It Up — Nintendo's Next Console Champion

In the last few weeks there have been some interesting announcements from Nintendo. First, Nintendo surprised us by announcing a new edition of the original NES, the NES Classic Edition, which appears as a tiny version of the original console. It comes with 30 pre-installed games and a exact copy of the original controller. The included games are great, but there are some sad omissions, such as: the original Contra, Duck Tales, Tetris. But it does have all of the NES Mario Brothers and Zelda games, as well as Metroid, which for me are the only reasons I need to want one.

And then Nintendo released a teaser trailer for it's next major console, the Nintendo Switch (which had been going under the development name NX for some time). The Switch looks to be just as innovative as the Wii was a decade ago in that it merges the two gaming environments of console and portable into one unit. This separation of console and portable dynamic is largely something that was introduced by Nintendo with the Gameboy as a companion to the NES. Nintendo has long been the dominate factor in mobile gaming, so it's interesting that the Switch will bring these two environments together.

The switch accomplishes this by being a nice looking tablet with detachable controls, which can then be placed into a docking station to connect with a traditional HD television.

I've been a Nintendo fan for most of my life. Although I've only ever owned a few Nintendo systems (the Super Nintendo, the original Gameboy, and the Wii), I've had friends and other family who provided access to other systems such as the NES, the Nintendo 64, and the GameCube. Video games for me allowed me to tap into an imaginative place. And this is something that has long been a real strength of Nintendo, and something that I think takes a back seat to the action of games created by more recent development studios for the traditional console makers. This probably goes back to the philosophy of Nintendo's leadership of making things they love.

The Nintendo Switch will be the first system of the 9th generation of video game consoles, a generation that will not see any real new contestants for some time. That's not to say there's not any competition because Microsoft and Sony are putting out updated versions of their consoles to compete for the traditional gamers attention this holiday. These updated versions are slimer and even more powerful than the previous versions, and they include features such as blueray support.

It's ironic that the term 'traditional gamer' applies to more recent gamers who are drawn to the powerful consoles and action based games. To me the real traditional gamers are the ones who'd feel nostalgic for those old school 8-bit and 16-bit titles from Nintendo and Sega, and those drawn to the fun on Nintendo. A lot of those folks will be having kids of there own, so there is a good opportunity here for Nintendo to tap into that nostalgia for those wanting to provide that kind of fun experience for their kids. As this recent Fruit Loops commercial (which I love) points out, there is a real deep affection for those classic games.

I'm really excited for this new Nintendo system, and I look forward to the exciting games it will offer. In addition to Mario and Zelda, I hope we'll see new Metroid, Contra, Castlevania, Street Fighter. I also hope that content for previous consoles and portable systems will be available via an e-shop. I'd really like to be able to download classics and games I might have missed on recent portable systems and consoles (A Link Between Worlds, New Super Mario Brothers U, Wind Waker HD, Mario Maker, etc).

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September 12, 2016

 

Strangely Awesome

The real surprise hit this summer was the show Stranger Things on Netflix. From the moment the first trailer was released, I knew this was going to be an awesome adventure. I've watched the trailer several times, and even after watching the show from beginning to end, the trailer is still captivating to me. I guess that's the mark of a good trailer.

There are too many reasons to fully explain why Stranger Things was a huge success (just read this blog about the opening credits), but here are a handful of reasons I found it wonderful. For starters, it is a perfect depiction of childhood in the 1980s. From the locations, the clothing, the vehicles, it all felt meticulously honed in on the details of that time, making it seem exactly like it did to be a kid in the 80s, a pretty awesome achievement on it's own.

Maybe the most important aspect of Stranger Things that makes it such a hit, is that it follows three separate and equally interesting storylines, providing three distinct points of view of the same events. These points are view are unique by their age group (elementary age kids, teenagers, and adults) with each group experiencing other drama appropriate for their place in life. This is helped a lot by the fact that the show has an amazing cast. I was particularly impressed with the performance of David Harbour as the sheriff, but everyone is really solid.

Another strong reason the show is great, is the spooky synth-laiden soundtrack, which can go from mixing ethereal and ominous tones to dancing around whimsy or melancholy innocence. As I get older I increasingly notice the role a soundtrack plays in the experience of a movie or show, and here is a great example. Trivia: the OST comes from a LA-based group that goes by name SURVIVE, here is their Bandcamp page where they have a lot of other interesting music available for purchase. Read more about the group here.

If I have one lament about the show, it's that I wish there were two to four more episodes. They kind of wrapped up everything really abruptly at the end. And there were some loose ends not perfectly explained. Maybe that's on purpose. After all, season 2 was recently announced and they need something to bridge the story from the first season. Here is a very exciting trailer for season 2, which cleverly reuses the opening theme style of season one with the episode titles for the upcoming season. Just seeing the first episode title “Mad Max” lets is know that the creators are well on their way in the creation of season 2, and that is likely a lot more 1980s nostalgia to explore. We also know that the show will take place roughly one year following season one's events. I can't wait.

The Stranger Things-styled banner above generated here.

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August 30, 2016

 

The Whole World In Your Hands

I stumbled upon this on Twitter earlier this week and it has really captured my attention. This photo by Astronaut Jeff Williams (who is currently residing in the International Space Station) is astonishing. It displays the entire west coast of the United States, from Washington State all the way down to the Baja Peninsula in Mexico.

I thought it might be a good idea to label some of the more distinguishable landmarks visible in the photo, see below...

Here is the high-resolution version of the photo with labels. You can also download the original photo from NASA's website.

It's cool that you can see so much of our country in such detail in one image.

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August 24, 2016

 

From Sea to Shining Sea, and Screen to Shining Screen

July was an interesting month for me because I got to stick my toes in both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. The month started for me with a trip to San Francisco, and ended with a trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was also my first time to fly across the country, check out the map I made of the trip here. It's amazing to realize that you're crossing so much terrain in just a few hours.

While I was at the beach I got to see three films: Star Trek Beyond, Ghostbusters, and Jason Bourne. Here are my reviews of each:

Star Trek Beyond (A)

I'm biased because I'm a Trekkie, but this really was a great Trek film. I've gone to see many of the Star Trek movies at the theaters in my life; the Search For Spock was the first, and it gave me nightmares after I saw the scene where brain eating bugs in forcably incerted into the ears of the crew.

I generally like all of the Star Trek movies, even the not so great ones (Generations, Final Frontier, ), but I was nervous that without Abrams directing Beyond that it might not live up to the first 2 new rebooted films; however, it really was a great Trek film. Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty, and Shawn in Shawn of the Dead) wrote a fantastic script.

It's a contained story, in that it doesn't add or take away from the bigger Trek universe. It stands on it's own as a very entertaining entry to the series. I really hope we get at least a few more films with this cast.

Ghostbusters (B-)

I wanted very much to like this movie! The original film is one of my favorites. On paper this film should have been great. It had the director from Bridesmaids, and some of that amazing cast. It had an interesting idea of fliping the genders of the characters from the original. It had so much oportunity, but when it was all said and done, it was just a pretty ok remake.

I'm not sure I understand the decision to make this a remake, instead of a sequel. It seems like there was plenty of opportunity to keep the movie in that original film universe, rather than rebooting the whole series. And had that been the direction, there would not have been such a need to rank it against the fantastic original film.

Those gripes aside, it was a pretty funny movie, with some decent jokes are spread throughout the film. The best joke in the whole film in my opinion was related to the mayor's detest for being compared to the mayor from Jaws.

Overall, its a not terrible remake, but it could have offered a lot more.

Jason Bourne (C+)

Jason Bourne was sadly just not very good. I had to make a trip to see this with my Dad because we have seen all but the original Bourne film in theatres together (and we saw the last one at the beach as well coincidentally). This Bourne movie is really more of the same, there was nothing that really sets it apart. I think it missed two big opportunities to make it a better movie (which are still opportunities for future Bourne films!).

First, they didn't take advantage of any of the plotlines set up in the previous Bourne film (Legacy). I think people don't give Legacy enough credit, even though it was a very odd choice not to have Bourne as a character, they introduced some really interesting new scenarios/secret programs to investigate. The story was a lot more intersting than what we got in this last Bourne film.

Second, the intrigue of the original movies (and Legacy) was the plight of the main character figuring out their past. This is no longer the case for Jason Bourne, who knows he's actually David Webb. They did have some interesting backstory about his father. What would have made this film a lot more instesting is if now Bourne was a free agent, doing what he deemed prudent and in the best interest of the country he swore to protect. That would end up with a character a little more like Robert McCall, but it just seems like the natural progression for a guy like Bourne.

Allow me to pick a nit for a moment … “Jason Bourne” is a terrible name for this movie! It's an ill-conceived departure from the naming strategy of all the previous Bourne films (including the most recent Bourne film which didn't even have Bourne as a Character). Really anything would have been better: The Bourne The Bourne Colonoscopy, The Bourne

I have to wonder why the studio thought they should give the film the name “Jason Bourne”. Were they trying to follow other action series of late such as Rocky and Rambo, or Fast and Furious? Do they subscribe to the advice of some beguilingly idiotic think tank which generates these terrible name ideas? Hollywood, stop giving your movies dumb names!

When I first heard the name “Jason Bourne” a tiny seed of doubt was sowed in my mind. I have a theory which is so far proven accurate, which is: if a movie has a bad name it's more likely that the movie will be a bad movie. This isn' always true, just think of the following phrases to get my point: “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” “Batman Vs. Superman”.

There was nothing innovative or exciting about this movie, and that's unfortunate considering how excellent the series has been so far. Lets hope that the studio dosen't give up on Bourne and persues some more interesting story lines in future films.

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July 31, 2016

 

Beach Trip 2016

I just got home from a beach trip with my family. As always, it was a really great time with a little stress/chaos mixed in. Here is a gallery of photos from our 2016 trip.

Before we got to the beach, my oldest niece Hannah and her boyfriend Brian flew into Charlotte to spend the day with me before we went to the beach. It was a lot of fun showing them around the city, checking out uptown, a local brewery, and getting some BBQ.

We've been going to the beach for decades as a family. (Here are some photos from previous trips: 2007, and 2012.) It all started in the 80s when we rented a little house named 'Camelot'. Camelotwas just a one-story little house on stilts with a short walk via a sandy trail to the beach: it was great! My niece Hannah and I found that old house. I was very happy to discover it's still around for rent.

In recent years there have been a lot more of us, which requires a much bigger house for everyone to fit. All together there were 22 of us this year (Mom, dad, my brother and his wife, my sister and her husband, my brother's 3 kids, 2 of my sister's kids, my sister-in-law's 4 kids, my brother-in-law's 3 kids, my two oldest niece's serious boyfriends, and me).

The water was surprisingly cold the first few days: in the 50s. Because of the cold water there were butterfly fish were swarming in the water. The air temperature however was very high, with high humidity, creating quite the contrast between the air and the water. I can't remember the water being so cold at the Outer Banks in July, when the sand was so hot. Thankfully by the end of the week the water temperature had increased to the mid 70s, and the air humidity decreased making in a lot more pleasant.

Lighthouses

This year, as we usually do, we went to see a couple lighthouses: Bodie Island and Cape Hatteras. Lighthouses have always been an of interest of mine. I've been to the top of Bodie Island Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and Currituck Lighthouse). This year, due to the heat, Bodie was not open for climbing to the top. But we did climb the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, which is the tallest lighthouse in the USA with 248 steps. It was quite hot inside. The outside temp was 95 degrees, and the inside temp was 104 degrees. The humidity made the inside temp feel like 117 degrees according to the weather report. It was a challenging hike up to the top. But the view made it all worth it!

Movies

I usually try to take in a movie or two while I'm at the beach. This year I was able to see three films. Jenah's boyfriend Joe went with me to see the new Star Trek. My sister Dana and her husband John went with me to see the new Ghostbusters remake. And Jenah, Joe, and my dad went with me to see the new Jason Bourne movie.

I hope our family continues to make these trips together!

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July 17, 2016

 

San Francisco

Galleries: Flight to San Francisco | Exploring San Francisco and Surrounding Areas

A couple weeks ago I made a trip to the San Francisco/San Jose area to attend a wedding of some of my best friends.

This trip marked a lot of firsts for me: it was my first time to visit the west coast, first time to fly across the country, first time to use the Uber app for transportation, first time to try the famous In-and-Out Burger, first time to see and stand in the waters of the Pacific Ocean, etc...

Prior to this trip, the furthest west I'd been was Fort Worth Texas. Flying over all the country for the first time is an experience that is hard to put into words. And doing it all in about 5 hours from 30,000 feet is a bit of a shock. Once you cross the Rockies the landscape changes dramatically, both in color and grandeur. The scenery becomes surprisingly brown/beige, and the landscape becomes surprisingly massive.

I couldn't help but notice that up until you cross over Nebraska, it's clear that nature is almost entirely crafted by humans. Flying over Nebraska it was impressive how square everything was. Everything was broken down into perfect squares of agriculture, the roads making a perfect grid for as far as the eye could see. But once our flight passed over southern Wyoming it was surprisingly baron. Here everything seemed barely touched by people. And as our flight passed from Nevada into Calafornia, I was amazed to see at the edge of the horizon a snow covered peak, which I later discovered was a volcanic mountain (Mt Shasta) that was over 150 miles from the location of my plane.

I was lucky enough to have a window seat so I took a lot of photos. And later using Google maps I was able to pinpoint the location of the photos I took. I made a map of the trip, and created a gallery of the photos from the flight.

Map of flight to San Francisco

San Francisco is such a beautiful city. The architecture was gorgeous in every direction. The temperature/climate was fantastic. I walked quite a bit Saturday morning until I spotted several iconic landmarks, such as the Transamerica Pyramid building with the Bay Bridge in the background, Coit Tower, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Other highlights included: Hiking in the John Muir Woods National Monument and stopping by Google's Headquarters on the way back from the wedding rehersal dinner. It was a bit weird/surreal to use Google Maps to locate and visit the actual Google headquarters. We were also able to take in a Giant's game on July 4th. And afterwards I used the MUNI transit system to take a ride across town to see the Pacific Ocean.

Here is a gallery of photos from the trip to San Francisco, Google, the John Muir Woods, and the Pacific Ocean.

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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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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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