Wednesday, October 18, 2017

SNHU: Update 1

As I come up on the end of my first term at Southern New Hampshire University, I figured it's as good a time as any to give an update on my progress so far.

First and foremost, I'm doing remarkably well in class. For IT-510 Advanced Information Technology, I have 386.9 of the 395 possible points so far, resulting in a 98%. For the first few weeks, I read the textbook like a good student should. Lately... I've just Googled things as I needed them. Concepts that I didn't understand, I look over the first few Google results and wing it. Clearly, it's worked well for me so far. The only points that I have lost through the entire term have been based on formatting, since I didn't adhere strictly to APA style. Did I mention that I hate formatting?

On the other hand, I feel like the people that I'm in class with are surprisingly ignorant for a master's program. The spelling and grammar errors in discussion posts are prolific. I figured people that would pursue a master's degree would look over their work, but I'm clearly mistaken. Every week, the professor sends out announcements for people who are behind. She gives ample opportunity to get caught up at the cost of a few points for being late. Still, people don't seem to turn in their work at all, on time or not.

I'm not going to complain. I'd rather be in classes that are disappointingly easy than struggle my way through every module. This isn't exactly what I expected of the program, but I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I went into this endeavor for a degree, and if I can keep up 2 years of Google-fu, I should be able to manage that. I'll have a Master of Science in Information Technology, with a focus in Software Application Development.

This first term is over on November 12th. Hopefully, when I give another update between the end of this term and the beginning of next term, I will maintain the same level of confidence in my ability. Starting off my time at SNHU with a 4.0 GPA would be incredible, and a great morale boost for the remainder of the program.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Standardized Character Creation in Video Games

A lot of video games allow players to create their own character, selecting gender, build, skin color, and facial features. Some people stick with the default character or one of a number of preset characters. Others like to create characters at random, with no real inspiration other than what their imagination comes up with. I, and players like me, try to create an avatar that resembles me as much as possible. If I’m going to be playing the game, and there isn’t a protagonist created specifically for the game, I want the main character to be an extension of myself.

The Problem

There are a number of problems with character creation systems when trying to make a character look a certain way.
For one, the way people look can be very hard to describe. I could spend pages describing myself, or I could include a headshot and a full body shot in this post, and you’d have a near perfect idea of what I look like instantly. “A picture’s worth a thousand words” may actually be an understatement in this case. I could probably spend a few thousand words describing my appearance, as vain as that would be, and there would still be facets left up to the imagination. I know what I look like, and I recognize myself in pictures or a mirror, but I can’t fully tell someone what I look like enough that they could recognize a depiction of me without a shadow of a doubt.
Not only is it hard to describe a person’s appearance, but every character creation menu in video games is different. Some allow very granular control, with sliding scales to adjust minute dimensions. Others give a few options in a few different categories and let you pick which one you like best. Hair is typically limited to 30 or fewer different styles, and maybe 20 different color variations. Facial hair might have a few different options, or may just be a simple on/off toggle. Of the 7 billion or so people in the world, there are massive variations in what people look like. Much more than what most character creation menus offer.

The Solution

So what can you do? I propose that there should be a standard across all character creation menus that would allow people to reasonably recreate themselves in any game that offers such a feature.
The Mii creation system on Nintendo’s 3DS would be a good starting point. Players can use the handheld’s camera to take a picture of themselves after lining up their eyes and mouth with on-screen indicators. This isn’t perfect, but it gives the software a good idea of where your features are, and represents them in the game with decent accuracy. I feel like this could be taken quite a few steps forward, however.
What if players took several pictures of themselves from several different angles? Maybe have a uniform pose of arms outstretched, feet together, etc in order to calculate the dimensions reliably. Pictures taken from the front, both sides, and from behind, one from far away for whole body shape, one much closer to pick up fine details in face structure. Almost like motion capture that is already done in games already, have a system that could do this in a low cost way for anybody. The final result would be a 3D representation of your whole body, and one of specifically your head.
So you have a 3D model of yourself, but good luck showing or describing that model to a video game. The next step would be to measure a number of different dimensions to put this into a quantifiable data format. Distance between eyes, distance between pupils, length of nose, width of lips, height of ears, color shade of skin, among numerous other data points. If there were a standard created, and enough data points recorded, any compatible system should be able to recreate your model fairly accurately.
With all of these data points and a standard to go by, video game developers could incorporate an option to load from a file into character creation menus. If I put my 3D model details into a specific folder on my PS4 or PC, any game should be able to access it and load in that data to visibly recreate me as the game avatar. If a certain game isn’t going to use certain metrics, it could just ignore those supplied parameters. Players would still be able to create their own characters should they so choose, but I wouldn’t have to spend an hour or more tweaking every little setting and end up with somebody that barely resembles me at all.
An interesting extension of this system would be a hub in which players could upload their 3D model to allow other players to use them as a character. If celebrities got involved, I could download the model for say, Samuel L. Jackson, and play as him. No need to manipulate every setting by hand in order to try and recreate him, when I can submit data that does it automatically.
Obviously, there could be some serious privacy issues with a system like this. There was a big controversy a while back when a model of Ellen Page appeared nude in “Beyond: Two Souls.” Even though the developers of the game never acquired a nude scan of Page, they tweaked features of the character to make them look mostly like Page. It isn’t explicitly morally wrong, but there are definitely some questionable actions in a situation like this. Having uniform 3D model data available for so many people is bound to experience some similar situations.

Perhaps there are more complications to this idea than I’m aware of. I don’t work on video games, I have no experience with graphic design, I’m just musing about something that would be cool to have. I want to play a video game as myself. Is that really so much to ask?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The High Feeling

There is a sensation that I occasionally experience that I frequently describe as “that high feeling.” I have no idea what causes it, there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to when it happens, and nobody I’ve talked to about it has experienced anything similar.
I’ve been having this sensation from time to time since I was about 20 years old. Calling it a “high feeling” may be a misnomer, as I’ve never actually been under the influence of illicit drugs to compare the two. I call it that because I have no better way to describe it at the moment. It doesn’t happen often, maybe once a month or less. Sometimes it will happen fairly regularly, other times I’ll go months without feeling it.
The sensation itself comprises a number of different symptoms. The first that I notice is a sort of light headedness. Everything gets fuzzy, and I find it hard to focus. This facet of the sensation is very similar to what happens when I go without sleep for a long time. After I start to lose focus, my breathing will become very shallow. The strangest part is when I have a sort of pulling sensation in my chest. It’s almost as if someone has their hand behind my sternum and is pulling upward and outward from my body.
Toward the end of these spells, my limbs get numb and tingly. I usually start to feel cold, especially near my hands and feet. After a few moments, I start to regain focus, the feeling comes back to my limbs, and I’m fine. There was one specific time that I blacked out, and my wife found me leaned across the bathroom counter. Otherwise, I don’t know that I’ve ever lost consciousness in conjunction with these high feelings.
It isn’t an unpleasant sensation, just very strange. As I mentioned before, I don’t know what causes it. Some have suggested that it may be dips in my blood sugar or lack of sleep, but the instances are so erratic that I can’t place any criteria that remains the same each time. I’ve been told that I should see a doctor about it, but I can’t imagine that it happens often enough to be tested for.

For now, it doesn’t seem like anything I should be imminently concerned about. Just something that happens from time to time. I would love to know more about it, or talk to others who have experienced similar sensations.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Platinum on Final Fantasy XV

After 80 hours of playing and almost 7 months, I finally got the platinum trophy on Final Fantasy XV.
I enjoyed FFXV enough that getting the platinum trophy was extremely likely, if not inevitable. Most PS4 games that I start playing, I at least look over the trophy list. If they all seem reasonably easy, I’ll go for platinum. Just a few hours into FFXV, I noticed that the platinum shouldn’t be too hard, and it honestly wasn’t. A little time consuming, sure, but not painfully difficult.
The main campaign took me right at 50 hours, at which point I’d already hit most of the highlights. All I had left was to gather the rest of the royal arms, grind out the remaining character skills, and kill the Adamantoise, mostly. Collectively, a bit, but individually, none of them were very taxing.
Getting Noctis’s fishing skill to level 10 was probably the most frustrating. Fishing, as a mechanic, is fairly well implemented in FFXV. It’s just not something I care to do, especially as much as I had to do to max out the skill. I bought the best gear, did the fishing quests for the gear and xp, and did everything I could to speed up the process. Even still, I’m fairly certain it took me a few weeks to finally finish with it.
Killing Adamantoise, what many people consider one of the most frustrating trophies, was certainly annoying. Not hard at all, every single attack is telegraphed and easy to dodge. Just really, really, really, really long. It took me something in the ballpark of 3 hours, across a few days. Supposedly, there are faster ways to finish the fight. I don’t care, I beat it and grabbed that trophy as my second to last remaining. All I had to do after that was camp about 10 times in a row to get Ignis’s cooking skill from 9 to 10.
Looking back, that’s the first platinum trophy I’ve received in almost exactly a year. The last one I got was Ratchet & Clank (2016) back in September 2016. As I’ve discussed several times before, I really just don’t have the time to go for every platinum I see anymore. On top of a full time job, a freelance job, and a family, I now also have school to worry about. Video games just aren’t a high priority, so I have to be selective with what I play.

I may start writing posts for every platinum trophy I get now. They’re certainly rare enough that I won’t be bombarding my blog with platinum announcements. Just could be a neat way of noting, hey, I actually enjoyed this game enough to play it to 100% completion (or whatever is required for platinum).

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Digital Receipts via Email

Some merchants allow customers to receive digital receipts via email. Why can’t everyone?

The Benefits of Digital Receipts

Toys R Us is a surprisingly tech-savvy store chain. They allow NFC tap and pay, and you can even have receipts sent to your inbox instead of getting a paper copy. For me, this is amazing. First and foremost, it gives me something that I’m far less likely to lose. If I get a paper receipt, I usually just throw it in the bag with my merchandise. For items that I may need to return, I’ll put the receipt in my wallet. Either way, it usually gets lost or thrown away within a day or two. By opting for an email, I have a semi-permanent record of my purchase that I can’t exactly lose, and I can even search my email for later. Unless I delete the email, which I rarely delete emails, I have records of basically any purchase I’ve made at Toys R Us within the past few years.
In addition to giving me a digital record of my purchase that I can easily find later, email receipts are more private and secure. While there isn’t much valuable information on a receipt, keeping them exclusively in my inbox means nobody can access any of the information except for me. Where I might leave a paper receipt on the dash of my vehicle or drop it in the parking lot, an email receipt is kept behind my login credentials in a place that only I will see.
As an environmental benefit, digital receipts reduce the amount of paper used for a transaction. No, a single receipt isn’t going to make a huge difference. However, if larger stores like Toys R Us were to eventually migrate all receipts to digital, I’m certain it would have a fairly large impact on environmental conservation. If other chain stores follow suit, it could add up to a potentially huge reduction of paper, and thus fewer trees chopped down for paper. Not to mention, the merchants themselves would save money on the cost of paper.

The Problem with Digital Receipts

So, how does Toys R Us know that I want an emailed receipt? I have a Toys R Us account, and my preferences indicate that I want a digital receipt, and where I want it sent. When I get to the register at Toys R Us, I give them my phone number to look up my account, and then they know what to do.
Not all merchants allow digital receipts. In fact, I would say that more probably don’t than do. Even if more merchants did offer digital receipts, I need an account with each store to have my email and preferences indicated. The alternative would be to physically input my email address for every single transaction, everywhere I go. That’s not going to happen, especially with a line of impatient people behind me.
Even if I could open an account with every store that I regularly shop at, do I necessarily want them to have my email address? Toys R Us is bad about sending deals and junk email, but I can fortunately turn that off. What about stores that make spam emails harder to opt out of? Even worse, what about merchants that might sell my contact information to advertisers? I don’t want an inbox full of advertising just to get receipts by email rather than paper.

The Solution for Digital Receipts

While it doesn’t cover all of the logistics around implementation, I do have an idea for a solution to get digital receipts at every store: handle it at the credit card level. While many consumers do still use cash, I would wager that the majority of transactions in the United States are probably paid with credit or debit cards. If every major credit card company would allow users to receive receipts in their inbox, rolling this functionality out to each individual merchant would probably be feasible.
Most credit card users likely have an online account with their company to pay their bill online or check statements. With this account, users could indicate a receipt email, possibly not even the same email that the account uses. Additionally, users could select a preference for digital receipts, paper receipts, or both. This central hub would mean that anywhere I use my credit card, merchants would automatically know what I want.
Since there are only a few credit card companies in the United States, it shouldn’t be difficult to implement a standard and universal system. I say that, but xkcd has a good example of how standards in technology normally go. In any case, if there were a single standard, only a few companies would have to adopt it.
How would this take place? The customer goes to a merchant, be it retail, restaurant, professional services, or anything else. Merchant opens up a transaction for the customer to pay. Customer swipes or inserts credit card, exactly as things work now. When the merchant bills the transaction to the credit card company, they would send payment as well as the customer’s receipt preferences. At this point, the transaction is paid like normal, and the merchant’s point-of-sale system would know whether to print or email a receipt to the customer.
An added benefit of this system is that the user’s email address can be decoupled from the transaction. The merchant can send the digital receipt to the credit card company, linked only to my credit card number. The credit card company could then send my receipt to the email on file. This gives added security, since the merchant never sees my personal information. Merchants can’t send spam emails, or sell customer data to other advertisers.
If this caught on with most merchants and credit card companies, receipts for any credit card transactions would be available in a single place. Any sort of tax deductions, reimbursements, or anything involving receipts would be far easier. Instead of filing receipts away for every purchase you make, your credit card company and email service do it for you.
Yet another benefit would be fraud notice. If every merchant sends digital receipts, then an unexpected purchase email would be a clear indicator of credit card fraud. Instead of looking over statements each month, users would immediately know when a thief used their credit card. Inevitably, this would reduce the time and hassle around reporting a stolen credit card, or the risk of not noticing the stolen card.

Obviously, this would require work from several different parties. Merchants and credit card companies alike would need to agree on a standard and work on developing the hardware and software to accompany it. However, I feel like the benefits significantly outweigh the costs. While I don’t know of a way that I could personally help bring this into practice, I definitely want it to become a reality. Paper receipts are an old practice, and I genuinely believe digital receipts are the all-around superior option.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Shot Glass Collection

For quite a few years, I have collected shot glasses. Some people collect snow globes, some collect baseball cards, I collect shot glasses.
How did I get started collecting shot glasses? Honestly, I can’t really remember. I probably picked up one from some tourist destination because it looked cool, rinse and repeat a few times, suddenly I’ve got a good many of them and it’s just become my “thing.” I’ve been collecting them at least since middle school, as I have a few from my 8th grade trip to Washington, D.C.
Collecting shot glasses has its perks. For one, it makes souvenirs super easy. If someone tells me they’re going on a trip and want to bring me something back, I always ask for a shot glass. No need to shop around and find something they think I’ll like. If they pick up a shot glass, we can both know for certain that I’ll like it. Plus, they’re typically cheaper than other souvenir items like shirts and towels.
One facet of my collection that is missing, however, is some sort of catalog system. I have a lot of shot glasses, probably upwards of 50 at this point. It’s very easy to forget what places I have a shot glass from, or what styles I have if I want to get a different one from the same place. Obviously, I don’t take my collection with me everywhere I go, and I don’t really look at my collection enough to know what I do and don’t have. It would be nice to have some sort of software or database with all of my shot glasses listed and described.
What would I want in this sort of system? An image of the shot glass, or maybe a 3D scan if I’m feeling fancy, would be nice to see them at a glance. Going forward, it would be nice to record the date of acquisition, to know which I’ve had for the longest. Location would be nice, so I could filter by where I do and don’t have shot glasses from. If it was a gift from someone else and not one I purchased for myself, I would like to record who gave it to me. Finally, I would want a details or notes field for any text-based information.
With all this information, I would want multiple ways to look through my collection. The most practical would be searching by location, seeing all the shot glasses I’ve obtained from a place, or whether I have any from there at all. Additionally, I would want just a visual interface that I would look through and show off my collection to other people. Sure, I can show them off at home, but what if someone asks me about it when I’m away from home?
There would certainly be some growing pains to apply this sort of system to an already existing collection, but I feel like the benefits would outweigh the hassle. I don’t plan on stopping my collection any time soon, so it will gradually become more and more overwhelming to keep track of. Before it gets any more unwieldy, it would be nice to get everything in order to have a tidy list of the shot glasses that I have.

Meta:

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Paragraphs: 7 | Reading Level: 9-10th Grade

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Pokemon Battle Tower Doubles

I grew up playing Pokemon. Starting with Pokemon Blue Version in gen 1, I’ve played a Pokemon game from almost every generation released to date. However, the most fun I’ve had in any Pokemon game was doing cooperative double battles in the Battle Tower of Pokemon HeartGold.
HeartGold came out when I was a freshman in college, and I preordered it to pick up on release day. Generation 2 was always my favorite, with two full regions and a lot of my favorite Pokemon. Obviously, I was super excited for a remake of that generation. I played through the game like normal, finished all 16 gyms, beat the Elite Four, and took down Red at the top of Mt. Silver. I figured after that, I was done.
My roommate at the time got SoulSilver, and he taught me about Effort Values, Inherited Values, and the Battle Tower. The main story of Pokemon was only the beginning. The real game starts once you can access the Battle Tower and breed up some powerful Pokemon. I felt like such a noob, but it was fantastic to be able to bring new life to a Pokemon game.
The first Pokemon that I bred to get a Battle Tower entrant was Scyther. Not necessarily an amazing option for competitive play, Scyther is my personal favorite Pokemon and it can hold its own in a lot of situations. Once I had the skills and move set that I wanted, I started playing through singles in the Battle Tower to test my mettle.
After I figured out how the Battle Tower worked and got a few wins under my belt, my roommate suggested that we do double battles. As the name implies, a double battle pits 2 on 2, as opposed to the traditional 1 on 1 of older Pokemon games. Players can use 2 of their own Pokemon and control both, or they can work together with each player controlling only 1 of their Pokemon and coordinating attacks with each other.
As much as single player Pokemon requires skill, it has nothing on the nuance and complexity of double battles. Fighting with 2 Pokemon opens up the opportunity to combo moves, but also forces you to consider the effect that moves will have on your allies. Many moves affect all combatants, and thus can do damage to your opponents as well as Pokemon on your side. Some of the best team combinations take advantage of these mechanics in clever and interesting ways. Initially, I didn’t pay any mind to what Pokemon would work well together, we just went in with the Pokemon that we liked. What we started with, however, turned out to be an amazing combination that we stuck with for nearly the entire time we played doubles together.
I led off with my Scyther, and packed a Typhlosion as my second Pokemon. My roommate began with his Rhyperior, but I can’t recall what his second Pokemon was. It’s inconsequential anyway, as his Rhyperior rarely died. The beauty of this combination was something that gradually unfolded over time.
One of the first things we appreciated is that Rhyperior’s Earthquake didn’t affect Scyther because of his Flying type. Earthquake is an immensely powerful Ground type move, augmented by the Same Type Attack Bonus that Rhyperior receives. Furthermore, it hits all Pokemon around the user, allowing us to hit both opponents at once. Tons of damage, without the side effect of damaging my own Pokemon.
Soon after, we realized that Rhyperior’s Lightningrod ability pulled Electric moves away from Scyther and onto Rhyperior. Scyther’s Flying type makes him weak to Electric moves, but Rhyperior’s Ground type makes him completely immune to Electric. This means that any Electric Pokemon we encountered were hit 2x by Rhyperior’s Earthquake, and couldn’t possibly do any damage with Electric type moves.
Finally, Rhyperior’s hold item was Quick Claw, an item that causes the holder to strike first 10% of the time. Scyther has particularly high speed, and often struck first. Rhyperior, however, is notoriously slow and often attacked last out of the 4 Pokemon on the field. Quick Claw gave him the first hit for the occasional clinch victory, and I swear it happened closer to 50% of the time than 10% as it is supposed to.
Other than those key benefits, our combination just had really good cohesion and a lot of type coverage. What Scyther was weak to, Rhyperior was often strong against, and vice versa. In the few cases that we needed something else, I could swap in Typhlosion and use powerful Fire moves without much risk to Rhyperior. Fire does half damage to Ground, Rhyperior was bulky anyway.
We spent many an evening in the dorm room, playing the Battle Tower doubles over the Nintendo DS ad hoc connection. We never got tremendously far in, and would often die in completely unfair ways, but we really had a good time. Other than the one time when we were on a roll and the connection spontaneously dropped when we were not more than 5 feet from each other, it was super fun. To this day, I don’t think anything I’ve done in any Pokemon game has come anywhere close to those evenings.

Meta:

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