Friday, December 09, 2016

Review: Enemy Unknown Plus (PS Vita)

Through a combination of sales, coupons, and credits, I picked up Enemy Unknown Plus on my PS Vita for about $2 during my summer trip. For the next several months, my Vita was turned into the "Enemy Unknown Plus" machine.

I'd been given free licenses of Enemy Unknown (the base version) for both PC and the PS3 over the years. The PC version, however, crashed during the tutorial, so I was never actually able to play. The PS3 just didn't feel like a good venue for a strategy game that required lots of thought, as it would take up the family entertainment center.

The PS Vita turned out to be an ideal platform: you never have to turn it off, as power consumption is minimal. Suspending the game didn't impact any other activity on your smartphone or computer, so you could stay in context for weeks and months. The game itself is a port from the iOS/Android versions of the game. However, one visit to the Android App store and you'll see that games like this have a really spotty record for even people who have high end phones! That's because the game was written using the C-based Unreal Engine, and I'm sure the amount of hacking required to get it to work on Android at all must have been huge.

The Vita, on the other hand, not only has a common platform (no fragmentation), but it also has 2 joysticks, a joy pad, and face buttons. That means the UI on the game is awesome --- you're getting an experience almost identical to that of the console. In fact, once I learned the game, out of curiosity, I tried it on the PC and found the mouse interface on the PC inferior --- I ended up attaching an XBox Controller to make headway. Even then, I discovered that the base version of the game was inferior: Enemy Unknown Plus integrates features from Enemy Within, and made the game so much better that even though it was harder, I went back to the Vita version to finish it.

The game itself is a tactical game with strategic elements that are outside the tactical game. The tactical game is a squad based game where you control a squad of 4-6 characters in a grid-based turn based tactical game that's very reminiscent of D&D. Each side gets a turn with its characters, and each character gets 2 moves, 1 move, and an action. Actions, however, always end your turn, so if you take your action right away you don't get to move. The characters' moves can be interspersed with each other, so for instance, you can move one character, switch characters and then move another character, and then switch back for the first character to take its action. The UI is very intuitive and the only touch input is for switching weapons, which isn't done frequently. The game has a fixed number of maps, but the missions played on each map is varied. I played 3-4 games (to varying levels of completion) and only had a few repeats.

Each character has a class (there are 4 classes: snipers, heavies, assault, and support) and can be leveled up, attaining skills that affect loadout and occasionally allow them to break rules. As with any D&D game, you'd want a mix of classes in the field as each class brings an important ability to the game.

The strategic elements aren't confined to characters and leveling up, however! The game also includes resource management at multiple levels (base building), and strategic positioning (where to add satellites to watch for UFOs), and research (what weapons to research first, and how to allocate funds for equipment for the tactical game vs interceptors for the strategic game). This makes for agonizing decisions every month, and nail biting resolutions to various missions as the tactical game impacts whether you have resources to carry on the fight to the next level.

The game does have several design errors. One is that the skill tree for various classes are not evenly balanced. Certain skills (like squad sight) are much more powerful than the alternates, but you don't know that until you get to the middle of the game and suddenly discovered that you just get wiped and can't make progress any more! Similarly, if you fail to prioritize satellites and engineers over scientists, you'll get quickly over-run by the aliens and lose the game.

As for the implementation on the PS Vita, there are several issues: one is that the load time is incredible. Expect load times of up to a minute in between enemy encounters. Save/restore take similar amounts of time. Secondly, there are bugs: I've had more than one or two games crash out during a mission load. The solution is to save early and often. Since the file sizes are relatively small, this will not hurt you.

Despite all that, the game's well done and a lot of fun. It's ideal for short bursts of play, since in about 10 minutes you can finish an UFO encounter. As mentioned, even if you can't, you can always suspend the game and resume later with zero load time on the Vita, so as far as I'm concerned, the ideal platform for this game is the PS Vita. Highly recommended, and a must-own if you have a Vita and haven't played the game on other platforms yet.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Review: Algorithms to Live By

Algorithms to Live By is actually an interesting book, even if you're a computer scientist. For one thing, even if you're a computer scientist, once in a while it's nice to get a layman's refresher of the breadth of the field. This includes analysis of the Secretary Problem, a review of exponential backoff, and of course, the range of NP-complete problems (though since the book is for a non-technical audience, the term NP-complete is never mentioned)

Some of the applications are fun and entertaining, like the application of scheduling theory to personal time management.  Others are a mere discussion of topics: for instance, over-fitting in machine learning has correspondences in human training programs. Most Googlers would have already had exposure to these algorithms, as well as the quick sampling of auction theory the book covers.

For the non-technical, this book is written in a very clear, non-mathematical fashion. As long as you remember what a polynomial and an exponent with, I don't expect any of the concepts in the book to give you trouble. Since the book opens with the secretary problem, a quick browse of the first chapter will quickly help you determine whether this book is for you. Certainly, for a non-technical audience I find it hard to think of a better book to read if you're not familiar with computer science.


Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Review: Cure - A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body

The author of Cure, Jo Marchant, comes with a ton of credentials, essential because of the credibility required to cover the topic.

The first few chapters explore the placebo effect. Impressively, even placebos that are labeled placebos work --- and the more expensive the better. Then she covers more innovative approaches, such as using immersive virtual reality for pain reduction, and various approaches combining cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness.

All of these approaches however, only work on issues where pain perception or the illness (such as chronic fatigue syndrome) is largely psychological. Marchant acknowledges for serious diseases (such as cancer), there's no question that approaches such as homeopathy, etc., will not work purely on a "mind over body" basis, and are in fact, harmful if they prevent the patient from seeking real medicine.

While an interesting and entertaining book, I'm not sure I got a lot out of it. It's very clear that all research in mind over body has quite a ways to go, but the lack of easy studies (it's tough to do double-blind between people who do mindfulness and people who don't, for instance) mean that if you're a skeptic, the evidence is not quite compelling as yet.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Review: The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books

The elevator pitch for this book's awesome: what if, instead of trying (and failing) to read all the "great books" that are part of the western literary canon could be replaced by exciting, fun books that will have you eager to read them instead? What if a professor gave you 12 books to replace boring stuff like Hamlet, Moby-Dick, War and Peace, or Ulyses?

Sucker that I am, I jumped on The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books. The problem is, the typical professor's taste is not necessarily going to be to be yours. I'd actually read 3 of the books Prof. Voth provides in this course: Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men", Le Carre's "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold", and Moore's "Watchmen." For those 3 books, I can attest that Voth does a good job describing the book and explaining why it's so great. Unfortunately, for the rest of the books in his list, I can't say as much. He recommends 12 books, and of them all, the only 2 books I'm even intrigued by are Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, and Death of An Expert Witness. The other books he recommend sound as boring as the classical works they replace.

The upside is that the audio lecture series is short: 6 hours to cover 12 books, so worse comes to worse you're not out a lot of time.

Monday, December 05, 2016

First Impressions: Garmin Vivoactive HR

My brother bought me a Garmin Vivoactive HR as a late birthday present. Continuous use of my Vivoactive has reduced its battery life significantly, so it was a timely gift. Over the past year, Garmin has been the only smart watch maker that has been gaining market share. Since you've probably not ever seen a Garmin ad (I certainly haven't), this market share gain has been entirely via word of mouth and product excellence, which is unusual in this day and age where marketing trumps all.

When putting the watch on the wrist, I was immediately impressed by how it's completely changed the UI from the predecessor. The two buttons no longer do what I thought they did, but in exchange the device is more customizable. I can now remove the Golf app, which I'll never use. The touch screen swipes also no longer do what they used to do. I also bought the Garmin Tempe sensor, and that pairs reliably with the Vivoactive HR, as well as providing temperature information for my rides to the device, which faithfully logs it.

The HR functionality is the major feature upgrade. I didn't realize how constricting my HRM band was until I started riding without it. It felt liberating. In exchange, the data probably isn't anywhere as accurate. My hardest efforts barely registered 160bpm, while with the strap I could regularly exceed that on the reading. One nice note about the HR functionality --- if you have both a Garmin watch and an Edge, you can broadcast the HR from the watch to the Edge by turning on the broadcast feature. While the device warns that this will reduce battery life, in practice, the battery life of the device is so great that I haven't really noticed it.

The other improvement is the battery life. There's two ways to view this. One is that passive battery life has been reduced, because the always-on HRM reduces the previous life from about 14 days to about 5 days if you leave it on. The other way is that active GPS-on battery life has been increased from 10 hours to 13 hours. In practice, 3 hours of riding (with HR broadcast on) reduces the battery life by about 20%, which extrapolates to about 15 hours of riding. That's excellent, and gives me confidence that after a year or so of use, the battery will still be good for about 10 hours of riding, which would enable me not to have to charge it in the middle of a ride. Not only does the increased battery life mean that battery wear will no longer make the device useless, the increased battery life also means that the number of cycles the device endures is reduced, which in turns also reduces battery wear if you're fond of long workouts.

The third feature is the barometer, which is huge for cyclists and hikers, but also opens up ski mode. Reports are that ski mode works really well, detecting when you get on ski lifts, etc., and recording the number of runs, but I'm not an enthusiastic skier, so don't expect to use this mode at all.

The con is that as before, Garmin has locked out open water swimming (there's no reason the device couldn't do it, just that Garmin wants you to upgrade to the $600/$450 during holiday sale Fenix 3 HR). There are also no structured workout or power meter support. But if you need either of those, you're way more serious about training than the average athlete, and can probably justify a dedicated device or the Fenix 3 HR.

The long and short of it is that Garmin has hit the ball out of the park with the Vivoactive HR. If the competition was just Google, Garmin could rest easy, since Google ADD probably means that it will give up on Android wear soon. Unfortunately for Garmin (and fortunately for us consumers), Apple and Fitbit still provide viable competition in this space, and neither of those suffer from ADD and will stick around for the foreseeable future.

The difference between the Garmin device and the Apple watch is the battery life: if your ride/run ever exceeds 4 hours or so, the Garmin device will be your choice. The difference between a Fitbit and a Garmin is the software/data ecosystem. If your primary social network for fitness activities is Strava (as it is with most cyclists), then go with the Garmin. If you're mostly a "step-counter" person whose social network is filled with Fitbit users, then Garmin wouldn't work for you at all. As a self-driven person who's workout patterns aren't driven by social networks, the Garmin device has much better reliability and integrates with the cycling ecosystem better.

Obviously, a long term review is a necessity, but my first impressions of the Vivoactive HR is nothing short of stellar. With the holiday pricing of $199 and potentially coupons at Best Buy, REI, and other vendors, this is a great time to get one.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Review: Harmony Hub & Echo Dot

I started writing this review of an Echo Dot, but realized that I couldn't really review it without the true reason for its presence in the home, which is the Logitech Harmony Smart Control.

A year ago, I bought the Amazon Echo and returned it. It was a great device, but didn't really justify its place in the living room. It was too big, and it didn't do very much, and it did a terrible job of voice recognition for my wife and Bowen. (The non-English speakers in the household obviously couldn't use it at all!) A year later, the Echo Dot is $50 ($40 during the holiday season), and it's basically the Echo stripped of the speakers, requiring you to plug it into the entertainment center's speaker system. That's perfect, since you likely have much better speakers in the entertainment center than any puny portable speaker will do. Much has been made about how the Google Home device is cheaper than the Echo, but the reality is that most people should really buy the Dot instead.

Out of the box, the device could control my Sensi thermostat. Realistically speaking, however, you're not going to adjust your home temperature that way. If your programming is up to par at all, you're going to tweak the thermostat at most once a month, and remember the voice command to do that is more onerous than pulling out the smartphone and running the app.

But once I got the Logitech Harmony Smart Control Hub ($70 right now on Amazon, which is a great holiday season deal), the Dot proved to be extremely useful. I'll summarize what the Harmony Hub does. It plugs into the wall, and you can program it with your computer or smart phone app to act as a universal report. What's great about it is that it accepts commands from your smart phone, a "simple remote", or another universal report via RF. That means it can sit inside a cabinet and still receive signals. It incorporates an IR blaster, which can then activate all the other devices in the same cabinet. For devices that are outside the cabinet (e.g., the TV), the device comes with an auxiliary IR blaster that can be plugged in and then run outside the cabinet.

Put it together with the Amazon Echo, and wow! With the old universal remote, it could power on the IR-driven devices, but couldn't turn on the PS3. Now, I'd walk into the living room and say, "Alexa, turn on Playstation." It would then immediately power up the PS3, TV, and Speakers, switching the speakers over to the PS3's output. "Alexa, turn off AV" would turn everything off. No more hunting for the remote, no pulling out the phone to switch to the app. As someone who's never cared about home automation (seriously, do you need voice control to turn on the lights?), this is truly a "Star Trek" living in the future experience. And no, Google Home can't do it because it doesn't support "external skills" yet.

The penalties: I still can't access my Google Music library, and I'd have to pay $24/year to upload all my music to Amazon's music library. That sucks. I'm sure at some point I'll break down and pay if music becomes important enough.

In any case, I highly recommend this combination. Given the sales during the holiday season, it's well worth the time to set it up.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Review: Snap Circuits Arcade

I grew up with legos here and there, but never got obsessed with them the way some people did. The dedicated kits that are now popular also fail to ignite my interest, and the times someone gives Bowen one of those kits it invariably results in me assembling it for him.

Over the Thanksgiving holidays there was a sale on the Snap Circuits Arcade Electronics Kit for a reasonably good price. The cover says it's for kids 8 and up, but various reviews said that a 5 year old would still get good value out of it if an adult helped, so I jumped on it, despite not having ever played with electronics as a kid.

The box is huge, but most of it is air. There's a bread board, and 35 discrete pieces: a battery holder, a fan (with LED persistence of vision output!), a microcontroller (already preprogrammed and not programmable!), a speaker and alarm unit, various resistors, switches, and wires of different lenghts as well as a bunch of jumper cables. Most of the units are quite well built and capable of withstanding a 5-year-old's abuse. The disco lights, however, is a flimsy 2 piece dome and stick set that's very prone to getting lost, unfortunately!

I got out the set and looked at the instructions and resigned myself to having to assemble the circuits for Bowen as he picked projects in the book. To my surprise, that turned out not to be true! He was the one who figured out that I had laid out the bread board upside down (i.e., it's an inside out breadboard, with pegs instead of holes), and then with only a little bit of help, he could assemble the simple circuits and place the jumper cables correctly in the right places!

What's great about the kit is that some of the more complex circuits force you to learn how to debug. If the speaker doesn't work, you know to trace the speaker area to see which part of the circuit hadn't been assembled directly. After watching me do that a few times, Bowen learned to do it himself!

The projects are relatively simple: a dice simulator, a black jack game, a trip-wire alarm, a moisture detector, and some projects that just make noise and light up. Many of the projects are just the same circuit with different programs to run on the micro-controller, so of the 200 projects listed, there are really only about 30-40 circuits that you have to build.

What's not so great:

  • The project manual is strictly that, a project manual. It lists projects, circuit boards, and instructions. While there are rudimentary descriptions of the various pieces, there's no guide as to how the inputs are supposed to work. For instance, there's no comprehensive listing of every program available in the microcontroller, nor are the specifications for how the controller sends signals to the speakers for them to play music.
  • As mentioned above, some small pieces are easy to lose and a bear to keep track of. Fortunately, there's a web-site that let's you order missing parts.
  • The micro-controller should be more programmable than it is. Why isn't there an EPROM in there where I can plug in a micro USB cable and reprogram it?!!
Nevertheless, for the price, it's reasonably fun and teaches the kind of debugging skills that's useful in real life. Recommended.