New computer day, Lego Star Wars, and today’s comic haul

New MacBook Pro

I’m writing this on my absolutely awesome new MacBook Pro; it’s a Retina display with 16 gigs of RAM and a 500-gig SSD. I’m still getting everything up and running; I have reconnected to my cloud services, which would have had me up and running and doing work almost immediately if I would have needed to do that. Except for some files and my non-iTunes music, I’m basically functional right now and I haven’t moved a single file off of my previous laptop. It’s just all there with the cloud storage.

The Retina screen is everything it’s supposed to be; the clarity is amazing, and the little things you run into when traveling about the Web that aren’t optimized for the high-resolution display just look muddy and sad.

I’m downloading Diablo 3 to put this thing through the paces; I have heard that it supports the Retina display’s full resolution, and I’m curious to crank all of the graphic settings up and see what this machine can do. Unfortunately or fortunately, however you look at it, since my World of Warcraft account is still active I’ll probably have to check that out too. Y’know, for science.

The only issue I’m seeing right now is with our home WiFi; it probably is related to both of my DropBox accounts trying to sync while I’m downloading the Diablo 3 client and goofing around online, but every couple of minutes every download operation stops and has to reconnect. I will be interested to see if this continues once these massive simultaneous downloads are finished.

Lego Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles

The new Lego Star War special, The Yoda Chronicles, debuted on Cartoon Network tonight. The girls absolutely love these, and awesomely they have served as a gateway drug to Star Wars for them.

This episode hooked me in the first minute with a sign that said “Coruscant: 15 parsecs” with a subhead that says “A parsec is a unit of distance.” It’s a great “we-know-40-year-old-nerds-are-watching-this” shot at the oft-discussed Han Solo claim from Star Wars that he “did the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs,” which led a bunch of nerds to speculate that George Lucas mistakenly thought it was a unit of time. Awesome.

The basic plot is actually pretty interesting, from a Star Wars nerd perspective, too. Count Dooku and Gen. Grievous plotted to steal the Kaiburr crystals from the lightsabers of four Jedi Padawans; those crystals were combined to create one “super crystal” which the pair took to Kamino and used to power Sith-enhanced clone troopers.

Cartoon Network led into The Yoda Chronicles by playing The Padawan Menace and The Empire Strikes Out back-to-back; we have had Padawan Menace on BluRay for awhile, and it’s very good; Empire Strikes Out wasn’t quite as good (although the Darth Maul character is hilarious) but was still pretty funny. I will have to pick that up for the kids as well.

Comic Haul

Today’s pickups for #NewComicDay.

Morning Glories #28

G.I. Joe #4

G.I. Joe: The Cobra Files #2 (this was released on the 22nd, but I just got around to getting it today)

Transformers: More than Meets the Eye #11 (this is six months old; somehow the shop didn’t get it pulled for me, but there was a copy sitting on their back-issue racks today. So I got it)

I was also planning to get Transformers: Robots in Disguise #17, but that wasn’t in my pull box. I should just bail on those and go digital.

Helen’s story, too many words on Transformers: Legends, and a recap of my weekend movie blitz

Helen’s lion story
A couple of weeks ago I had the girls in my office for a half-hour or so to account for some unusual schedule quirk between Mel and I. During that visit, Helen took a red pen and wrote a story for me on two Post-It Notes. Here is her story (with her spellings).

“Once apon a time there once was a lion that was 74 years old and was good at socker. And a professional ninja and his favorite subject was geography.”

Tell me you wouldn’t read the rest of that story if there were more Post-It Notes.

Teaching social media in schools

I just think there are way more important things to teach kids without diverting more valuable education time to something like social media…

Transformers: Legends
There’s a game available on iOS and Android called “Transformers: Legends”; it’s a free download with in-app purchases, and I started playing it about a month ago. It is a typical game; you can play for free, but your actions are limited by the game’s currencies — two of which you can buy for real money if you are so inclined.

The three currencies are credits (money used to pay to combine a Transformer’s robot-mode card with its vehicle or other alt-mode card to create a more-powerful version, or to use cards as raw materials to upgrade other cards); Energon (an “energy” that is used to undertake missions; each attempted mission segment costs 10 Energon. You start with 100 but can increase your upper limit to 136 by progressing through the game); and Battle Cubes (which are used one at a time to buy essentially pointless player-vs-player battles, and more importantly to begin fights with bosses in special weekly events called Episodes). Energon gets used up pretty quickly; you can spend a full charge of 13 turns in a few minutes, and when you have emptied the full 136 it takes 2 hours to recharge. Battle cubes can be expended in less than a minute, and recharge at a rate of one per hour. The Energon and Battle Cubes can be purchased with money.

Each turn in a “mission” has one of several outcomes — you play a mini game to shoot down incoming rockets by tapping them to earn credits; you discover one of three common or uncommon character cards assigned to that mission; you get to face off against a “boss” that has about a 20 percent chance to drop a rare-quality weapon; or you play the worst implementation of five-card Monty ever in a game for a chance to win a rare-quality character card. The rare is one of five cards on a board, which are flipped over and “shuffled,” and you tap a card to select the one you think is the rare. However, you will quick learn that the shuffle animation is the same very time and offers no clue as to where the rare ends up. So to win, your best bet is to just pick one of the five cards and stab it every time until the rare happens to be there. It is super lame.

The game also adds regular (weekly, basically) episodes — contrived storylines involving some Transformers characters that you are supposed to defeat for some reason. Basically it just adds a fifth possible element to each mission turn — a “boss fight” matchup against an opponent you can buy the opportunity to fight for one Battle Cube (or fight it with additional damage bonuses for two or three Cubes, which you should rarely if ever do). You earn points for beating each boss, which escalate as the bosses get stronger (and quickly to the point where you have to ask other players for help to defeat unless you want to spend many of your own Cubes to attack it repeatedly yourself — which is a waste of the game’s most valuable resource), and when the boss is defeated everyone who participates gets some sort of reward — typically tokens to buy more cards from the in-game store.

The episodes have two different reward ladders — one is based on your overall ranking for most points earned among all players who participate in the event, and the best rewards are locked up here. For this to be worthwhile at all, you have to finish in the top 5,000 (that level gets you an ultra-rare card, its alt mode and its matched weapon; if you don’t have all three the character is basically useless from a gameplay standpoint) — which at this point in the game’s life means you have to play pretty heavily during the episode and really work to maximize your boss points-per-cube metrics in the last three or four days of the event. By that point there is essentially no advantage to fighting your own bosses; you are better served to farm killshots from bosses fought by other players and get essentially free points over and over and over again.

The second tier unlocks different rewards depending on the total number of points you score. The rungs on the ladder are close together early on so its possible to get enormous rewards early in the event. However, and completely ridiculously, you reach a point where there are diminishing returns on the rewards — basically, relatively quickly you reach a point where your reward for reaching a point threshold is lower than the reward for reaching the previous threshold. Because by the time you reach those steps, your only motivation is to compete for a position on the overall leaderboard, so the game reduces the rewards to force you to buy the currency you need with real money in order to keep pushing up that second ladder. It is a seriously dirty trick on the part of the developers.

Also, the point rewards have become characters that if you have played at all seriously up until that point you will already have. So those rewards you can easily win are of minimal value; they will give your team a minor boost during the event due to their attack bonus, but once that bonus expires at the end of the event you will probably end up putting that character on the bench.

So, really, once you complete the four mission nodes on the globe and acquire everything there is to acquire on the 18 “missions” at each node, the game becomes totally pointless to play. You exist only to farm points during events, which is most efficiently done by sniping the killshot on episode bosses — which doesn’t even require you to play the game. You just sit at the event menu and wait for a notification to pop up that somebody needs help. If the boss has less health than you can deliver damage with one currency point, you kill it, earn the currency point for delivering the killing blow, and then repeat for as long as you can stand to stare at the app and deliver the three screen taps it takes to participate in a fight.

If you have a collector mentality there is some interest early in the game in acquiring the different characters and their alt-modes. However once you get all of the common and uncommon characters, you just have to play a game of chance against a virtual dice roll to complete the lineup of rare characters. Beyond that are the super rares, and it is essentially impossible to collect those without spending money. And the very good ones in terms of in-game power are reserved for episode rewards requiring a volume of points you are not going to score without spending lots of money on Battle Cubes for boss fights. But once you reach the point where your primary method of advancement is to farm killshots during episodes until your Battle Cubes run out, the game becomes pointless to play.

I reached that point on Saturday. So unless something changes, I am pretty much done with this.

Memorial Day weekend movie blitz

Star Trek Into Darkness Friday night. Completely outstanding movie, and without question the best movie I have seen so far this year. Oblivion isn’t in the same ballpark, and Trek even blew away Iron Man 3, which I also thought was quite good. Very excellent villain(s), I very much like this current iteration of the crew, and the effects and fight scenes are great. This gives me great hope for what JJ Abrams will do with Star Wars 7.

Epic Saturday afternoon. Fun kids movie; Helen loved it and Millie spent the entire movie being three. It will be fun to see again on BluRay at some point.

Hangover 3 Monday afternoon. There was really no way this could have been worse than Hangover 2, but it still wasn’t very good. The bar set by the first one was just so, so high; the two sequels were almost failed from the very start. This third one was OK; it was Chow-centric which was good, but for some reason the Chow character has spent the last two movies as a different character than he was in the first one. In the first he was fun and flamboyant and had this maybe-he-is-gay vibe; in the second he just became dirty and mean. In the third one he is a weird combination of the two; they have tried to create him as this super-villain but they pushed that so far that it’s no longer a good character, I don’t think. The writers also tried to weave in this redemption-of-Alan subplot that honestly just didn’t work. There were funny moments to be sure, but not nearly enough to say this was a good movie.

Has there been another movie franchise where the first film has been so incredibly good and the two sequels have been total duds? The Matrix comes to mind obviously, but I can’t really think of another one. A lot of really wasted potential here.

Star Trek, social media at work and Google Reader replacements

Star Trek Into Darkness
I’m going to have to let this simmer for a bit and see if I still feel this way tomorrow, but I just got home from Star Trek Into Darkness and thought it was completely fantastic. At first blush I get why the hard-core original series Trekkies would be displeased, but if you’re not in that camp it’s difficult to see what there is to not like about this movie. Fabulous.

Social media
Pinterest’s announcement from Monday about “more useful pins,” with added capabilities to display information about movies, recipes and items for sale, has had me thinking again about how I’m using social media for Bemidji State.

When I read announcements like this, my mind always immediately starts going to “Ok, now how might I be able to twist this and use it in ways that they’re not explicitly announcing support for?” This Pinterest announcement was the same way. What sorts of things to we do that aren’t movies, recipes or items for sale that might be able to make use of some of that same functionality? There are a number of things I immediately glommed onto for athletics marketing — ticket sales, merchandise, etc., and there might be some clever things you could do with the live-update data for game coverage. That’s all just ideas in my head without doing much initial exploration into how any of it works though. But there are some cool possibilities there, particularly given the certainty that Pinterest will be expanding this functionality in the future.

Still, it again raises a question of how to roll new things into an overall strategy. There’s already so much to keep track of, and despite what I feel is a pretty successful social presence for the university right now I still realize we’re barely scratching the surface of what’s possible. We need to start making use of Pinterest; we need to start making use of Instagram; we need to start expanding what we’re doing with Google+; we probably should have a Tumblr strategy. I want to make the time this summer to really dive into this and try to put all the pieces together; ideally I’d like a clear calendar for about two weeks to just hammer away at this. I think I could put together a compelling package; right now I’m just experimenting with toys, but those toys could quickly become pretty powerful tools if I took the time to learn them properly.

Google Reader
I’ve been a bit slow to identify an alternative to Reader since Google announced in March that it was going to be shut down. Given that it will still be alive and well for another month, I figured there was time.

I had been using Reeder, which I liked; there wasn’t anything amazing about it, it just did the job of letting me manage my feeds and keep read status synced between my laptop, iPad and phone. Although its devs have announced that it will have a future after the shutdown, right now it’s a Reader client and only a Reader client. So I suspected that I would need to find an alternative in the event that the revamp wasn’t ready when Reader shut down.

I bounced around to a couple of the different alternatives that were initially discussed after Google’s announcement, but I think I’ve settled in with Feedly.

Visually, Feedly has some significant differences from Reader that I like; I follow a lot of feeds that are primarily photo or graphic posts, or have graphics as a significant element in most/all posts, and Feedly has a display option to include a thumbnail image of the graphic along with the headline and a post snippet that is large enough where it’s sometimes not even necessary to click through to the post to get the content.

But, the biggest difference for me is the visual cues that Feedly has built into the “look at all posts from all feeds chronologically in one list” view. Feedly puts some breakers in like “today,” “yesterday,” etc., that make it pretty easy to scroll through a list and catch up on the most-recent things. Particularly if I haven’t checked a particular feed for awhile, Feedly’s layout makes it pretty easy to decide to skip everything older than a week or two.

It also breaks out three “featured” posts that it identifies by running some traffic analysis on whatever feed you’re viewing and pulling out the three posts that are getting the most number of shares or Facebook posts, etc. It’s interesting, but I’m tempted to turn them off because I’m not sure how helpful they are.

Return of the Jedi
Tomorrow, May 25, is the 30th anniversary of the theatrical release of Return of the Jedi. I have a story. I’ll share it tomorrow.

Workflow, updated

Of course, one day after my little treatise on workflow and the various to-do apps I have tried, Evernote launches a reminders feature. There doesn’t appear at first glance to be enough functionality to replace Wunderlist, although I will have to explore that, but it does seem as though it could potentially compete with Trillo as a potential candidate to manage story assignments with my writing team.

Now to play around with this and report back later…

On workflow, drawing and the new Flickr

How I’m Working
I’m putting some renewed effort into examining my workflows, particularly with respect to project management tools and ways to keep a “digital brain” in order to track the bajillion things I have on my list of things to do at any one time.

I initially started with Apple’s Reminders.app; it was easily available and uses iCloud to sync between my MacBook, phone and iPad. It has steadily improved since its first release, and the iOS6 version was pretty nice, but ultimately it was just a checklist. You made a list and added items that you could check off and move to a “done” list. The end. I wanted something a little more sophisticated.

My second attempt was to use Behance’s Action Method system — again, it used iCloud to offer seamless syncing between my various devices, but had significantly more features than Reminders. You can add color codes and make items orange, teal or gray; there’s a separate notes section where you can add long form written items that are organized by date (although the functionality for moving between notes from different days was pretty awful), and although I never got around to using this feature very much it had the option to delegate tasks to other Action Method users. I used Action Method for quite a while, until the pile of nagging little issues I was having with it (primarily, the iPad app was astonishingly crash, and the desktop app was written in Adobe Air, which meant more-frequent updates than I felt like messing with) reached the point where I wanted to seek an alternative.

After looking into a couple of different things I settled on Wunderlist, and right now I like it quite a bit. The app is just flat-out attractive; the devs are putting a lot of emphasis on look and feel, but in a way that supports usability of the app and isn’t just for show. It’s very Apple-like in that way. It really works for me; adding new items is amazingly fast, I have made excellent use of the ability to add task checklists to individual items on a list (for example, to build a checklist of distribution outlets for a news story’s to-do item), and there is a free-flow text area for adding long form notes to each to-do item. The one thing I miss from Action Method is the separate note-taking window for the long form notes, but in all honesty I should be putting those notes into Day One anyway, so they can be tagged and searched (I am dramatically under-utilizing the quite fantastic Day One, but that’s a post for another day).

Wunderlist is still pretty new, and the biggest issue I have with it is the lack of feature parity between the different existences of the service — the web app can do some things that the desktop app can’t do, which can do some things that the mobile apps can’t do. The developers seem to be working hard to keep the system updated, and this is still relatively new software, so for it to be as perfectly functional as it is right now is actually a solid achievement.

I discovered Trello today; our web team was using it for a demo they were giving us today. I haven’t spent a whole lot of time with it yet, honestly, but what I’ve seen at first glance is pretty nice. The app allows for simultaneous views of a number of lists, but its very clever feature is that those lists can be expanded into a separate view that includes dramatically more information. Trello quite properly calls this piece of information a *card*. On the front, a quick overview of the to-do item – name, number of items completed and total number of items on a sub to-do list, little tabs showing the item’s color codes, number of messages that have been added to that item’s activity log, etc. On the back, a full view of everything associated with that item – a to-do list, a view of team members who have been assigned to work on that particular item, a list of actions that can be taken and logged in the activity list, item-specific attachments, a list of the labels and associated color codes attached to that item, etc. At first glance what Trello has done is impressive.

I also used Basecamp this year to try and manage my student writers, but honestly it was only marginally effective. It could do the very basic things that I wanted to do, which was give the students a framework for checking in with me and giving a “this is what I did during my shift” report for me, and as a handoff to the student taking the next shift, and to give us some rudimentary discussion boards for us to share screenshots and talk about how to handle certain social media situations that came up during the course of the year. But it just didn’t seem to be that robust; I couldn’t even tell you offhand what I wanted to do with it but was unable to do (I suspect because I sensed its limitations early on and didn’t even try), but I was only marginally pleased with it.

While Trello may not (will probably not, in fact) replace Wunderlist as my personal project management tool, it’s got a pretty good chance to replace Basecamp. I just need to kick the tires on it a bit more and see what it can do. But its expanded features for teams – Trello’s “pro” version, essentially – is only $200 a year. It would be a pretty cheap experiment to run student assignments off of it next year.

I want to get to the point where I stop experimenting with things and settle in on a set of tools that help manage my often overwhelming workflow and get me to a place where I’m more productive. With my current trio of Evernote, Day One and Wunderlist, I feel like I’m pretty close to having what I need. The only remaining task is to seriously refine how the tools are used and for what purposes, solidify how they work together in my routine, and account for the few outliers that I’m still monkeying with (like iA Writer) – which I really, really like, but it seems like the work I’m doing there for story drafts could be moved to Day One).

What I’m Drawing
About a week and a half ago, I started this; it’s my attempt to copy a photo of Megan Fox that accompanied an interview with her in Esquire a few months back. I have mostly been working on it in 30-minute bursts over my lunch hour, which has been a fantastic way for me to recapture some creative energy that tends to get expended pretty quickly in the mornings at work.

I struggled with a couple of little things early on – her chin wasn’t right, I worked and reworked her cheekbone a few times until I got it where I wanted it (and then discovered that a little fix around her eye that I initially didn’t see was enough to cure a lot of other ills), and her right eye took me probably seven attempts to get properly placed and sized. But I worked through those, and right now, I’ve gotta tell you, I’m pretty happy with the way this is progressing. In terms of size, this is the biggest drawing I’ve attempted in 20 years, and if it keeps going the way it has started, it’ll be a keeper.

Flickr’s big update
In conjunction with its huge announcement that it had acquired Tumblr for just over a billion dollars, Yahoo! on Monday also re-launched a totally overhauled [Flickr. Flickr has been one of the sad sacks of the social media world for a long time; it’s the grand-daddy of photo sharing communities, but Yahoo allowed it to languish and mostly ignored it. Photo-sharing features were implemented poorly and quite slowly, and over time it simply faded into “who cares?” territory for all but the hardcore pro photographers who continued to hang out there — most people simply shifted the destination of their camera-phone photos to Facebook or Instagram or something similar.

But this new Yahoo under Marissa Meyer seems to be serious about becoming a competitor to Google in the web services arena. The new Flickr is amazing; the redesign is beautiful and offers some genuinely attractive ways to interact with your photos. They’ve also added the now-ubiquitous cover photo to your profile page, are allowing high-res avatars, etc. It’s nice to look at.

The biggest news, however, is that every single user of the site – every one of them – has, entirely for free, one terabyte of image storage. A terabyte. Compare that to the five free gigabytes you get from Google Drive or Dropbox or the seven from Amazon’s Cloud Drive. Granted Flickr is only for images and three-minute-or-less videos, but still — a terabyte of storage. For free.

I put that into some perspective on Facebook Monday night. I recounted a story about driving from Manhattan, Kan., to Circuit City in Topeka when I was in college so I could spend $225 on a 1.1-gigabyte hard drive for my Xeos-brand 486 running Windows 95. That was a huge hard drive at the time; I think you could get them in the four- to six-gigabyte range at retail for several times what I paid for my single gig. Yahoo gave a terabyte of storage away for free on Monday; had I wanted to acquire one terabyte of storage space on the day I bought that hard drive, it would have cost me $210,000. That’s an amazing window into how much – and how quickly – technology has changed in the last 15 years or so.

It’s incredible. Legitimately, amazingly incredible. And comparing the price of that 1.1-gigabyte hard drive to a free terabyte of storage makes me wonder what astonishing things I have today will seem equally ludicrous in terms of their price-to-performance ratio in another 15 years.