Friday, February 27, 2015

RIP Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy was in my life before I was even aware of it. He was just there on the television as episodes of Star Trek flickered before me in reruns as I grew up. My love of Star Trek was not a given. It happened slowly over the years. The TV shows were fun and I knew them, but it was when my dad started talking about the episode Space Seed and the upcoming film Star Trek 2 The Wrath of Kahn that I perked up and took notice. My dad was the one who read about the film and its connection to a single episode of the TV show. A sequel of sorts. After seeing Wrath of Kahn in the theater, that was the dividing line for me. Before that movie, I knew and enjoyed Star Trek—after seeing it, I was forevermore a Trekkie. Yes, I have even dressed up in costume and attended science fiction conventions. Thankfully I was still quite slim at that point.

Star Trek is an optimistic, forward-thinking, progressive, science fiction show created by the late Gene Roddenberry. It promoted tolerance, responsible human behavior, and above all, a never-ending quest for knowledge and exploration. What is not to love? The subsequent series and films evolved and matured as time went on, but most fans' true love has always been for the original TV show. Within the show there are many lovable characters. Spock, the green-blooded, half-human half-Vulcan was the bridge that tied humanity to the futures we can only still imagine. Spock was an interracial character with ties to another planet and was without question, everyone's favorite. His lack of emotion and his use of pure logic allowed the character to stand out and enlighten viewers to human prejudices in a way lectures and schooling could never even approach.

Leonard Nimoy was Spock and continued to play the iconic Vulcan right through the most recent Trek film. His death at the age of 83 leaves a massive hole in the hearts of fans worldwide. The echoes of Spock's on-screen death in Wrath of Kahn are sure to be on everyone's minds.

This time there is no genesis device to bring him back.

This time is the final goodbye.

I have been...and always shall be...your friend.

Friday, February 13, 2015

LEGO Heroica, Gone But Not Forgotten

LEGO by its very nature lends itself to RPG's, board games, and games in general. The infinite customizability of LEGO makes game-play something anyone with a pile of the bricks and some imagination can easily accomplish. The minifigures are already the right size for standard RPG grid maps, and there are so many existing properties that you'd be hard-pressed to not find minis that come close to suiting your taste.

LEGO Heroica was a simple, yet complex role-playing game that was released back in 2011. It is a very simple game to learn with easy-to-understand rules, yet complex due to the fact that it could be customized and built upon in many different ways.

My son and me playing a massive Heroica game on a snow day! 

The game is a classic dungeon crawl with squares and minis laid out in map form. Micro LEGO minis are used to roam the maps and encounter monsters and find treasure. There is even a very cool LEGO d6 dice with symbols on the sides. Since the sides pop off, it would be every easy to make custom dice. There were 5 sets released over the course of the game's run. Each set can be built according to the LEGO instructions, or just built any way the player wants. All 5 sets could be combined in different ways to form larger games. Combining all 5 sets could yield a massive map.

In addition to the 5 games, LEGO also brilliantly released Heroica Storage Mat cases. Of any game ever released that I know of, there has never been a more brilliant and well-constructed storage case than this. When the series was available I bought up all of it that I could find. Eventually it was discontinued—madness—and I wound up buying even more. Having 2 storage cases for this game is amazing. They also came with a HUGE fold out game board. This was not needed for gameplay but having it for gameplay is just awesome!

Why LEGO Heroica was canceled and why the RPG gaming community did not embrace this game more is a mystery. No single property in LEGO ever seems to last too long. Well, except huge properties like Star Wars. It does not matter though. If you are looking for this brilliant game just go over to Ebay where you will find loads of it for sale, mostly, at reasonable prices. The Heroica Storage Mat cases are a bit rare now and will run you well over the original cost.

Even if the sets become ultra-rare and expensive on Ebay you will still be able to use existing LEGO pieces to build your own custom game boards. LEGO sells their bricks online, so there are no excuses for not trying out this amazing game with your family.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Amazon echo: The New Voicebot on the Block

A few months back, Amazon announced its new echo voice command home speaker device. You can get it all straight from the horse's mouth right here. There is a video there too, and as you'll quickly learn, it's by invitation far. If you are like me and you are curious, you can fill in your email address and request an invite. I think I filled in my email before Christmas and I just got mine today. If you are an Amazon Prime member the device is $100. For everyone else it's $200.
It's like Apple's Siri on steroids.

Did I need this device? No. Not by a long shot. But I like technology as well as reviewing it, and since I am already a Prime member, the $100 was not a lot to drop. This unit is very much like a bluetooth speaker, just a bit larger. And there is no battery inside, so the unit is not portable...yet.

Hookup was very easy. Some wifi setting and linking to my Amazon account and it was on. Her name is Alexa and she'd very sweet. I already like her way more than Siri, who never quite lived up to expectations. Simply saying, "Alexa, what's the weather?" yielded a very quick result and then she went silent. Much of the music I've purchased from Amazon—always CDs—are all up and ready to be played digitally through Alexa, or via the online app or my iPhone app. All you need to do is ask, "Alexa, Play Blade Runner soundtrack." Boom! She states what she's gonna play, just in case there was any confusion, and then it starts playing.

Is the voice recognition perfect? No. But it's the best I've ever dealt with so far. And given that my own kids and wife can't hear or understand me half the time, I'd say she's already well on her way to becoming my new voicebot BFF. Weather, odd facts, spelling (my spelling sucks), music, alarms, shopping lists and even online shopping are all available for her to do by voice command. I disabled the online shopping immediately. That's dangerous. I hate one click purchases too. You can browse new music though, which is cool. For now though I'm not ordering crap through the air with this lady. She's too good to do my shopping for me. She's better than that.

The kids are at school but I'm sure Alexa will have to endure much abuse as soon as they get home.
There is a very handy mute mic button atop the unit. If you are worried about the NSA listening, or if you just happen to have your real life friend Alexa over, the mute button is a great feature. Alexa will not respond when the mute button is pressed, and the LED light ring atop the unit goes RED to let you know she's deaf for the moment. I just hope she can't read lips or is related to the HAL 9000!

So far I've listened to music, asked her to spell catastrophic, listened to some news headlines, and added Newman's Own ranch dressing to a shopping list that appears on the companion iPhone Amazon echo app. The app is nice too, and I'm glad it's on the iPhone. Of course Amazon would prefer you to use their phone with it, but it is not necessary and would not entice anyone to purchase it just so they could use it with echo. Putting the app on different platforms shows that Amazon is realistic about the varied choices people in the world make. The $100 Prime price point for members is an obvious hard play to get more people signed up for Prime. If you shop on Amazon a lot like I do, Prime is a must-have necessity.

So that's that. She's up and running and now a new member of the family. I'm already in love with her in a very plutonic way. Nervous laughter. Go watch Her now.

This is the future, too. Make no mistake, more technology like this is coming. It's like in Dances With Wolves when Kicking Bird asks John Dunbar, "How many more white men are coming?" And John answers while pointing up to the sky, "Like the stars." That's what's coming with technology—a lot of it. It may not seem too fast to us as we watch it grow, and 2 years can seem like a lifetime waiting for a new phone, but in my brief 40+ years, so much has changed already that I am sure I can't even imagine how fast and crazy it will all get eventually.

What I can easily imagine is a self-driving car that drives to the store without me in it to get loaded up with groceries I dictated aloud online. I can imagine a smallish R2D2-type bot that roams the house, up and down stairs, sweeping up dirt and dust and vacuums the rugs, all the while taking my commands. I can imagine a lawnmower like this too. I can imagine these devices quickly becoming insanely sophisticated with the way they speak to us, how they listen, and how they fill a social void for parts of humanity that need social voids filled. And once these bots start looking like humans I can imagine even more. A lot of it good, some of it not so good. It's always been that way though. Humanity is extremely varied, and so therefore the uses we apply to our technology will be varied. It's important for companies and end users to exercise more than a modicum of caution regarding these devices going forward. Anything extra like a mute mic button, to help put end users at ease is a must. And the more safeguards taken the better. It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye.

Keep safe.

Alexa, what is the weather tomorrow?...

Alexa, put cookies on my shopping list...

Alexa, set an alarm for 5am tomorrow morning...

Alexa, play the Balde Runner soundtrack...