Monday, March 17, 2014

The World of Minecraft

One of my favorite pastimes is playing a game you may have heard of called Minecraft. Shortly after it was released to the public for purchase, my son brought it to my attention, and he asked me if I could buy it for him because it was going to be “the next big thing” in games. At first, I was really apprehensive because it was in its early alpha stage and was being sold by this one guy, Markus Persson, and I just had mixed feelings about it. But I had learned to trust my son's opinion on computer and console games, so I delved deeper and checked it out. What I saw was amazing.


There were people creating all manner of crazy builds. Huge builds composed of tens of thousands of blocks, and the game had some really fascinating elements in the UI that made the collecting and using of items almost effortless. The best explanation I could give would have to be Lego taken to a much higher level. Needless to say, I took the plunge and not only bought a copy of the game for my son, but also for myself.

Over the following months I played it off and on, and explored various aspects of what could be done with it, and as I played, new updates to the game continued to be released at an incredible rate. With each new release there were more types of blocks and more things that could be done within the world. Then I noticed a trend starting on YouTube. More and more people were posting their experiences with the game, and it was being embraced by the community as a way to learn more about the game and what could be done with it. All sorts of brilliant creations were starting to be showcased. Then came the inclusion of "electricity" in the form of what is called redstone. This meant that you could potentially build machines in the game, and this spurred a whole new level of interest for me. So much so, that I jumped into the YouTube community as well, and started posting my own creations.

Right around this same time, or maybe a little after, programmers from all around the globe started discussing the possibility of modifying the game to allow additional functionality and items. The enthusiasm from the development community was incredible and in very short order the ability to mod Minecraft became a reality and with it, huge possibilities for the game itself.

At first, I was committed to playing the game as designed—vanilla is the term that is used—but as time went by and I saw more and more incredibly designed mods that allowed for even more possibilities in the game, I decided to join the modded Minecraft gamers. Now I find myself getting bored with vanilla Minecraft, but I'm very pleased to see that Mojang, the company that now owns and develops the game, is embracing the modding community and even including some of the more popular mods directly into the game, while at the same time opening the game to allow modders to more easily create mods. These days, I use Feed The Beast for my modded Minecraft experience because it is so easy to setup and run, as well as keep updated.

I still don't have as much time as I would like to be able to play it more frequently, but it is always fun to fire it up and punch some trees. And now that I understand how Minecraft servers work and have seen how much more fun it is to play with others, I’ve set up a Minecraft server at home for my son and I to play on.

If you enjoyed Lego as a kid, you should definitely give Minecraft a try. I think you’ll have lots of fun. Oh, and there are two rules that you need to live by: never ever, under any circumstances dig straight down, and as much as you would like to, don’t hug creepers.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Don't Drive Like a D**k

I have been driving for just shy of twenty-eight years, and I am seeing a horrible trend among California drivers—the utter lack of understanding in simple physics, and a complete disregard of appropriate social behavior. I am sure that anyone reading this post will likely be nodding his or her head and agreeing with what I have to say, but how many readers will actually take these words to heart, or pass them on to others? I suspect these words will be easily forgotten as soon as said readers get behind the wheel. I will start by saying that the vast majority of the problems I see today are most likely the result of a couple factors—lack of driver’s education in schools, and an ever increasing population. There is one more factor, but I hesitate to put it at the top of the list of causes simply because I want to believe that the problem is not widespread—new residents to the state.



First and foremost, I believe that ever since driver’s education was reduced to elective course status and the number of online schools and training have risen, fewer and fewer students are getting a proper education in driving. More and more this responsibility is falling on the heads of parents who are working sixty hours a week, stressed out, and impatient. In fact, this responsibility is often being shifted to older siblings who have already earned their license, and the parents feel should be able to teach their younger siblings to drive. This situation results in a complete decline in the amount of education that new drivers receive. Now combine that with finite amounts of information found in online driver’s ed courses and test prep materials, and we have a situation where new drivers are barely learning anything beyond the essentials. Now advance forward four years and these uneducated drivers are commuting to work and college. Combine that with late-night gaming sessions, parties, or just working late, and we have an accident waiting to happen. Each morning I see someone speeding through traffic because they did not give themselves enough time to drive to their destination in the morning. And that takes us to the lack of understanding physics. There are very simple laws of physics that dictate total travel time from point A to point B. You can drive like a bat out of hell for fifteen miles on the freeway, but as soon as you exit you will have to stop at every light along with everyone else, unless of course you want to break those laws as well. So, that time “saved” breaking the speed limit—lost. Sure, one might have saved oneself a minute’s time, but what else did one lose? What about the wear and tear on the car? The stress caused to both mind and body worrying about getting caught or getting in an accident?  Was that one minute of time really worth it? Is one so self-absorbed that he or she is willing to tell the rest of society to go to hell just because he or she is unable to wake up at an appropriate time to commute to one’s destination at the posted speed limit?

That brings up the second issue I raised—disregarding acceptable social behavior. I realize that there are psychological factors at work when one is encased in a steel shell and only in the presence of another for a few seconds, but that does not excuse the behavior that more and more drivers are exhibiting. I can completely accept erratic driving and speeding if one has a life-threatening issue, but if one’s behavior is due to a lack of preparation, that individual has no right to act the way he or she does. If one were to walk through a crowd the same way one drives, how long would it take before someone “corrected” that behavior either verbally or physically? And again, what is being gained by driving this way?

If you find yourself falling into the rushing trap, try this little test one day to see just how much time you are really saving yourself: record the time you pull away from the curb and your arrival time at your destination. Drive like you usually do to beat the clock. The next day, go to bed at a reasonable hour and wake up early enough to get out the door with plenty of time to get to your destination. I recommend Google Maps or Google Now for determining how long the trip will take. Drive to your destination going the speed limit and not a mile faster, feel free to stay in the slow lane. Make sure to record departure and arrival time. How much time was saved between the two? Depending on distance traveled it will likely be a few minutes at most. More importantly how do you feel both mentally and physically? I am betting you will be much more relaxed and happier in the second instance.

And before you accuse me of pointing fingers, I will say that I have been guilty of driving this way as well. We all have. It happens. Hopefully, it never resulted in an accident. Also, I have done the test I mentioned and mine was on an enormous scale. I used to commute almost 200 miles to school each week, and I tested the difference between driving like a madman and driving the speed limit. Do you want to hazard a guess as to the time differential? I saved a whopping ten minutes. Yes, ten whole minutes. And the difference physically and mentally was astounding. So tomorrow when you leave the house, do me a favor and take it easy and don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Role-Playing Games Are Good For Everyone

"Dungeons and Dragons," "Champions," and "GURPS" are the titles of three of the most popular role-playing games, yet most non-gamers have never heard of them. If they have heard of any of them, "Dungeons and Dragons" is likely to be the one they recognize, but not for its positive aspects. "Dungeons and Dragons," or more popularly, D&D, is considered the epitome of the role-playing game, or RPG. Many non-gamers equate it with a group of stereotypical nerds or geeks sitting around a table eating pizza, rolling dice, and playing make-believe, and to a great extent, they are correct. After all, stereotypes are based on common perceptions. What the non-gamer misses, however, are the many benefits that RPGs provide. As an avid role-playing enthusiast, or simply, a "gamer," since the age of ten, I have benefited greatly from RPGs, and now at the age of forty, I look back on my gaming experiences and realize the role that they have played in my life from an educational perspective. Playing RPGs improved my literacy skills, strengthened my creativity, and gave me strong analytical skills.

"Verisimilitude," "maladroit," "perquisite"—all words that I learned and knew the definition of by the age of eleven. The single most important aspect of role-playing games is the ability to read, comprehend, and recall information, and to use that information to communicate with the other players. Much like the popular games "Monopoly," "Life," and "Clue" that we all played as children, RPGs have rules that control the game and determine outcomes, but these rules tend to be written in books that are at least thirty-two pages long, much larger then the couple of pages of a typical board game. Because the rule books are also typically written by well-educated individuals for adult audiences, as a young boy, I found myself stumbling over the words and having to look them up. I wanted to because it was not school work, it was a game. The rule books spoke of fantastic ideas, places, and creatures that compelled me to find the original sources—the literature that inspired the games. I found myself consuming books such as King Kong, The Lord of the Rings, and I, Robot, not as school assignments, but as background material for the RPGs that I played. My friends were doing the same, and when we got together to play RPGs, we each brought new words to the table. I was learning words in the RPG books that I read that were years ahead of my fellow classmates. Many of these words were showing up in the purchased adventures, or modules, that we used for our games.


Many RPGs that were published in the late 70s and 80s had adventures that gamers could buy, which one player, the game master, or GM, would read and then use as a story to lead the other players through. The GM would present the setting, describing the area that the players’ characters, or PCs, would be adventuring in, and the players would then use that information to make decisions about what they wanted their characters to do. This typically involved overcoming an obstacle, righting a wrong, or discovering a secret. In other words, the players were pretending that they were mythical heroes, and their characters provided the abilities that their heroes had via the mechanics of the game. The restrictions placed on the PCs meant that the players could not simply say they overcame a given obstacle. The player would have to use only the abilities that their character had, much like real life in the sense that no one can do everything and we have to find solutions to problems using our own experiences and abilities. This lead the players to come up with surprisingly creative ways to overcome the problems that the GM presented. Eventually, I outgrew the published adventures and found myself creating my own scenarios. I used what I had learned in those adventures and the various novels I read to create my own unique worlds and puzzles for the players to solve.

The puzzles and obstacles in RPGs are where a great deal of analytical thinking is done. Players and GMs alike have to use analytical thinking in RPGs to solve problems or create sophisticated obstacles, respectively. Although it is the same thought processes that a writer goes through when creating a story, in the case of an RPG, the writer has no idea what his protagonists will do in a given situation, and more often then not, they do something the GM never thought of. At the same time, the players are the readers of the novel, not knowing where the story is going, or what the characters are thinking, and their control of the story lies only in their ability to influence events from their perspective alone. This, in turn, requires the GM to be able to think through the series of causes and effects at a moment's notice to keep the story moving, and to fit the players’ actions into the story. Another way of understanding the concepts would be to look at an RPG as a group of actors performing improvisational theater with a set of guidelines that control their behavior with random elements being presented by the director.

By now, it should be apparent to the reader that role-playing games improve literacy skills through reading and communicating with fellow players, boost creativity by exercising the imagination of the players, and strengthen analytical skills through the creation and solving of complex problems. I have played many RPGs over the years, in a number of genres and settings, and I am continually impressed with the general intelligence level of gamers in general. When I step back and look at my own educational experience, I see many times that role playing was used in the classroom—without it being a game—such as when I had to present reports on Alexander the Great and Thomas Edison, and I dressed up like the characters and presented their biographies as if I were those people. It is no surprise then that RPGs themselves are starting to find their way into the classroom, and some teachers are even sponsoring RPG clubs at their schools.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Spiceworks

After being in the IT field for several years, I found that having a centralized repository of other IT professionals that I could turn to for advice, recommendations, and help was nigh impossible to find. Information is scattered far and wide, and a great deal of it is either erroneous or misleading, so finding an answer outside of Microsoft Technet is a complete crap-shoot. Of course, finding answers on Technet can be just as difficult sometimes.

Jump forward many years, and I hear about this company called Spiceworks that produced a completely free network inventory and helpdesk solution called, Spiceworks.

Over the years their forums have grown steadily and at over a million users worldwide, it is the source of some incredible information--vendor recommendations, troubleshooting tips, how-tos, and even some water-cooler discussions. In fact, they have grown so large that they now host an annual SpiceWorlds conference in Austin, Texas. So, if you are in IT, and you haven't heard of Spiceworks, do yourself a favor and check them out. Even if you don't use their software, it is a great resource for IT professionals.

Spiceworks

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Animation

Early on in my computer career, I started exploring the world of animating on the computer. I had already been an AutoCAD draftsman for a few years and had worked my way through several versions, so the concept of dealing with wireframe meshes and the like was easy enough for me to grok when it came to animation programs. The program that I ended up using is called Poser, and I'm not sure how many versions I've gone through, but I think I'm currently on version 7. I haven't updated in quite some time because it has grown more and more expensive over the years, and I simply don't have the time to play as much as I used to.

I created this short animation for a good friend of mine. There is a great deal of animation in this short 6 second clip, so to see it all, you have to put it on loop and watch closely. The most subtle aspect is its breathing. Look closely to see it. I haven't done any animating in a very long time. Instead, I've done mostly still shots to create top-down objects for virtual tabletops. Several of which are posted over at the Dundjinni forums.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Hello World

I guess I should start with an introduction of who I am and what I will be putting here, so without further ado...

I'm a long time old school gamer. I started playing in 1979, shortly after moving to California. Over the years my life has taken many course changes. After high school I went directly into college and studied aviation mechanics as part of my original plan to be an aeronautical engineer. I figured I needed to bend a few wrenches before I started telling others how to do the same. Then, jumping forward several years, I ended up in the field of Information Technology, and have been working with computers in some capacity for the last 20 odd years.

My intention is to use this blog to share those two aspects of my life--gaming and computers. You'll likely see a potpourri of subjects directly or tangentially related to those two aspects. We'll just have to play it by ear and see if I can both keep up with this blog, and if I can find interesting material to share.

Thank you for reading this far, and I hope that I can keep you entertained and informed as we move forward.