Tell Front Row to Stop Interrupting You

If you use a Mac, there is a high likelihood that you have, at least once when switching applications using ⌘-Tab, accidentally hit ⌘-Esc instead. This causes your computer to pause for a bit, interrupt what you’re doing, and enter Front Row.

I have never used nor do I really care about Front Row. I’ve even managed to kernel panic my laptop once by invoking it and then trying to get out of it too quickly.

After a conversation with Andrew at work mutually expressing our hatred for that little “feature,” I was bothered enough to try and find a way to stop it from happening. It turns out that it’s a pretty easy thing to do, really.

Fire up System Preferences. You can find it in the Apple menu, in your Dock in a default setup, or in the Applications folder.

Click on the Keyboard preferences panel. Click the tab marked Keyboard Shortcuts.

In the list of applications to the left, select Front Row. You’ll see a list of—or really, the only—keyboard shortcut in use by Front Row, and that’s the one that brings it up when you don’t want it. Untick the box for “Hide and show Front Row” and then close your way out of System Preferences.

Now, hammer that key combination a few times to prove to yourself that the demons have been exorcised. It’s OK, because nothing will happen.

Mildly annoying problem, super-simple fix.

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Dead Space 2: First Impressions

Well, I wasn’t able to clear Bully in time, so I’m on my scheduled break from the backlog now to take in Dead Space 2, which I’ve been eagerly anticipating for some time.

The first game was a well-crafted piece of survival horror. It wasn’t anything new or groundbreaking, but it was a refinement of a lot of concepts in games that had come before. I found that it relied on cheap scares a bit too much, and near the end they designed just decided to toss a bunch of enemies at you just to slow down the pace of the game, but the story was enough to keep me interested and I thought the universe was well-planned and thought-out.

I’m about three hours in to Dead Space 2 and in game terms have just started Chapter 6, which means I’m past the first “what a twist” moment and also past the first truly irritating gameplay moment I’ve seen so far. Thankfully, the game is pretty amazing out of the gate. The images and sound are exactly right and create just enough tension to keep you going, and the pacing is just as masterful as the original. It’s 30 seconds of frenetic “save yourself” action followed by a minute or two of calm and relative safety.

The atmosphere so far has had plenty of the morbid and creepifying, especially reminiscent of the near-final areas of the first game. That’s an unnerving way to start out the sequel because it reminds you so much of the constant action towards the end of its predecessor. In some contrast to the earlier game, this one has wasted no time getting weapons into my hands, and the quick start was both fun and exciting.

The story so far has raised nothing but questions that I hope will be resolved by the end of the game. Truth be told, I had a hard time stopping to get some sleep, let alone type out my reactions, so this should tell you how interested I am. Dead Space had me leaning forward in my seat, palms slick from anxiety over the shadow on the wall or the sound coming from behind me. So far, this one’s got its hooks in me just as well.

Automattiversary

Today marks the first anniversary of my joining Automattic full-time. It’s been one year of working alongside those who Matt calls “the best people in the world.” (You can read my thoughts on that first day here.) It’s amazing to me that it’s been that long—it feels like just yesterday I was going through training and learning the basics of how to work behind-the-scenes on WordPress.com. I suppose time really does fly when you are having fun.

In the last year, I have travelled to the same location as and met my fellow Automatticians five times: once to San Francisco upon first starting, once to Austin for SXSW, a second time to SF for WordCamp San Francisco, once to Lisbon, Portugal to meet with my fellow Happiness Engineers, and once to Seaside, Florida for my first company-wide meetup. I’ve replied to support requests from WordPress.com users over 18,000 times. I’ve worked daily with a team of people dedicated to making the blogging experience of millions better—people I call colleagues and friends.

I love what I do, I love the way we work, and I love the people I get to share the experience with. It’s my belief that none of us could do this thing without the rest of us. I’m part of a team and a family and I hope to be working as part of that team for a long time to come. We work hard, we take what we do seriously, yet we also know how to have fun and enjoy the ride.

I may brag about it a bit too much, but I count myself as fortunate to have the opportunity to get paid for doing something I love to do.

To celebrate the occasion, Amanda made me this completely awesome cake, which I know was pictured above, but I love it so much I want to post the full picture again here:

I know it’s somewhat conceited, but I think this is one of the finest cakes my wife has yet made, and it made me feel pretty special. She’s been supportive of this venture of mine the whole way, from the first day I talked about applying, through my working two jobs while I learned the Automattic ropes, to today, and I couldn’t do what I do without her. Thanks, wife of mine!

Here’s to the next year.

Pac-Man Championship Edition DX

It’s general wisdom that you shouldn’t mess with a known classic, usually for one of the following reasons:

  • The game is so good that any attempts to improve upon it will merely fail.
  • The game is so bad that it was merely tolerated, even if people have fond memories of it. Don’t mess with nostalgia.

Thankfully, Pac-Man Championship Edition DX (or PMCEDX for short—if you can call it short) isn’t a retread of old game mechanics, and it’s not the old Pac-Man game shoehorned into flashier graphics. It’s not even the previously-released and also-awesome Pac-Man Championship Edition in a new package.

PMCEDX is a whole new game, I love it, and you should too.

You can boil the basic gameplay of Pac-Man down to a few simple concepts:

  • Eat dots to clear the board.
  • Get chased by ghosts who try to reach your position at all times.
  • Eat power pellets to change ghosts and eat them to huge points.

What PMCEDX does, is take these gameplay concepts and crank them up using a little Geometry Wars-style sound and flashiness. As in Pac-Man Championship Edition, you are eating dots on each half of the board to clear it. When you clear one half of the board, a fruit appears in the other half. Eat the fruit, and the maze on the cleared side regenerates, with a new maze layout and refreshed dots and power pellets.

Easy enough, right?

In the basic Championship Mode, there are also “sleeping” ghosts (you can see them as green in the shot above). When you pass them, they wake up and then begin to follow you in a line that trails behind you and constantly tracks you. When you finally do grab a power pellet, you can turn around and immediately begin tearing into the ghosts behind you, creating very long chains of point values, up to 3200 points for each ghost you eat.

What makes it challenging is trying to find just the right path to take to maximize the ghost eating and improve your score. In the base game, you have only five minutes to score as many points as possible and end up on the leaderboards. You’re given lives, but the score you rack up will take care of that problem—and that’s if you get touched by a ghost when you play. You’re also given bombs that will get you out of a tight spot, like when a ghost has you cornered (because the four normal ghosts are out in addition to the conga line behind you). They’ll bounce the ghosts away, but the downside is that they will bounce the ghosts away, which stops your chain and makes you waste precious seconds not building the chain behind you or destroying the ghosts by turning the tables.

The time limit, the increasing speed of the game as you play, and the pumped house-style music all combine to create tension and provide pressure to do better each successive time you play the game.

There’s something really endearing about games where the only enemy is yourself. You know how the game plays, you know what a good score is thanks to the leaderboards, and you know each time you lose that if you’d shaved that one corner a little faster or you hadn’t had to juke out that one ghost, you could have scored just a bit higher.

And if you mess up, it’s no one’s fault but your own. Restart and try again.

Blogging at WordPress.com

To the best of my recollection, I have been blogging in some form or another since some time in 1999. When I started, I was manually updating a site using a very old version of Dreamweaver. Later, I burned through a series of “platforms,” if you could call them that at the time. I started by rolling my own using some rudimentary ASP knowledge. I built one by harvesting posts and replies from an installation of Snitz Forums. I used LiveJournal for a while. I played with WordPress in its original release and then decided to go Movable Type instead—then ended up going back to WordPress when MT changed their licensing.

I’ve been on WordPress ever since, except for a three-month stint with Drupal that is best left in the past.

In that time, I’ve blogged, made themes, blogged some more, learned how to make basic plugins, and watched WordPress grow into what it is today. Thought I’ve had a WordPress.com account since back in the golden ticket days of the service, I was always primarily a user of self-hosted WordPress until a little less than a year ago.

Not long after I began working at Automattic and on WordPress.com full-time as a Happiness Engineer, I was looking at my personal sites and trying to determine the best thing to do with them. Shared hosting can be slow, and I was running more than one site off it. I had a very custom theme that I was pretty unhappy with because I’d rushed it and didn’t have the time to fix what I didn’t like about it.

I eventually made the decision to move both of my personal sites to WordPress.com, for a few reasons:

  • It’s better and more reliable hosting than any host within my cost reach.
  • I wanted to work with the same tools and within the same restrictions as the rest of our users.
  • It allowed me to test new features using my own content and site so I can relate them more easily in support.

When thinking about topics to write on for the Post a Day challenge, the experience of having my sites on WordPress.com kept popping into my head. It’s a great place to host a site, but there are things you sometimes need to work around because of our code or embed restrictions, and sometimes I miss certain aspects of self-hosting my sites.

On the other hand, there are plenty of advantages to hosting at WordPress.com. There are features here that are unique and either can’t be found (yet) or can’t be done easily on a self-hosted site without some serious systems mojo. I don’t have to worry about making sure everything is updated. I don’t have to worry about my host’s security track record (or lack thereof). I’ve had only a fraction of the downtime I experienced when I was self-hosting on a shared host.

So as part of my Post a Day ramblings, I want to talk about the experience of blogging on WordPress.com. What’s awesome about it? What’s frustrating about it or needs some working around? I think I’ve got some neat tricks up my sleeve for working with WordPress.com, and I’m willing to bet you do, too. You can find this post and my others regarding WordPress.com by clicking on the link in my navigation menu at the top of this page.

I encourage you to write about this as part of your trek through posting once per day this year! Let’s get the discussion going by rocking some comments! What is:

  • One thing you love about WordPress.com, or maybe the one feature that sold you on moving or starting your site here?
  • One thing that you don’t like so much about WordPress.com, and maybe wish was a bit different?

Backlog Showdown: Round One

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood has been dispatched and moved out of the Pile of Shame—so now it’s time to make good on this little experiment and bring it up for a vote: what am I playing next? While I clean up Achievements in AC2 and AC:B (almost at 33k now), please to be voting on the next game I tackle out of the backlog, from these choices:

(You may feel free to write-in and organize your own write-in campaign in the comments. I surrender control of this process to you, the reader. Voting ends on Friday night.)

This is heavily action-oriented, but in future polls we’ll get to something meatier. I fully expect that there will be a role-playing game throwdown or two at some juncture of this process. I am keeping these options light because Dead Space 2 arrives at my doorstep on the 25th of this month, and based on the early reviews it is something not to be missed.

As to this, my anticipation knows few limits. The first game was about lifeforms that spring from and then reshape the corpses of the previous inhabitants of a cold and sparsely-lit gigantic spaceship. The idea and the execution I found quite morbid and creepy, peppered with those kinds of “jump” moments that make you turn around when you turn the lights out in the room. Now these things of nightmares have been given an entire city to roam about in. I believe I will be experiencing more than my usual dose of fight-or-flight at the end of this month, and I sincerely do not want to miss it.

(Yes, I am aware I missed a day in the post-a-day challenge. Everyone in my house—and I do mean everyone—is sick. Sorry about that.)

Curling League Week Two

Well, this week went better for the team and worse for me. I wasn’t feeling 100% up to playing because I’ve been fighting a nasty cold for the better part of a week, but we made a pretty strong showing and ended up in a 6-6 tie, so that’s one point for our team.

I’m a little sore this week compared to last—I think I warmed up too early, but I also think my body wasn’t completely over the fever, coughing, and sneezing it’s been through. We had the late game as well, so the first draw didn’t happen until close to 9:00.

A sample score sheet from our league. Which happens to be tonight's.

Based on the scoresheet, we did pretty well, stealing a total of four points in back-to-back ends and giving up only one steal of our own. Unfortunately, I didn’t seem able to get the job done when I had the hammer to close things out. The second end was a failed draw into the four-foot, the fifth end (where they took three) was the result of a horribly botched runback that did not clear out the house, but instead cleared out the only scoring rock we had (which was on the opposite side of the house).

And we should have had two in the seventh, but I shorted one draw to the button and on the final stone of the game I fell over onto my stomach and completely lost my line on the shot. I suppose I’m lucky we didn’t end up making things worse with that shot, instead failing to make good on the hammer. Practice makes perfect.

Our second saved the third end with a rather remarkable double take-out. It was really satisfying to call the shot and then watch him whip the stone in there and make it happen.

We have a week off next week, so I might try to get some pick-up gameplay on this weekend. The ice was much better this week compared to last, but because it’s arena ice it’s had some weird peculiarities where the stone will pick on a skate rut and then curl almost 90º. I really wish we had consistent ice—one of my shots actually curled the opposite way from the turn!

It was just shy of a win, but as with many things, it was a great time had by everyone who played and I once again feel like I’m getting better at it.

Assassin’s Creed

(Yes, I just finished this in December. Also, in case you wouldn’t know, spoilers abound ahead.)

Assassin’s Creed is a concept desperately in need of a game. It’s deeply flawed in some ways and totally engrossing in others—and in my opinion, the flaws weren’t immediately noticeable until I was about thirty minutes into the sequel, which I’m working on now and will definitely give thoughts on later.

Perhaps the best way to give you my overall feelings on the game is to first lay out what worked and what didn’t. I’m sure lots has been written on this since the game is quite old at this point, but it doesn’t hurt to give another opinion.

What Worked

  • The setting (both place and time) is unique and compelling.
  • The sci-fi undertones, despite my initial misgivings, totally work.
  • The concept—the idea of the main character—is awesome.

What Didn’t Work

  • Altaïr.
  • Free-running was at times very imprecise and frustrating.
  • Samey-ness permeated the game.

One of the most telling problems with it is that I really had to force myself to finish the game, mostly out of a sense of disillusionment. The early trailers and buzz had the amazing concept that you were to be an assassin, striking from the shadows and then escaping with both intelligence and speed to blend back into the crowds and disappear.

When fulfilling the main assassination objectives, I think this happened exactly once—on the first “boss,” or more appropriately, target. For almost the entire remainder of the game, I was constantly in combat with scores of guards, and once I figured out the rhythm and pattern to the combat, it was rote and quickly became boring.

That’s not to say that the game didn’t have moments of beauty contained within. It looked great, controlled well (for the most part), and had competent but not amazing sound design. The voice acting managed to not get in the way, which is high praise. There was also an enormous feeling of satisfaction when pulling off a plan successfully and finding just the right way to accomplish your task. Assassin’s Creed has one of the more unique settings in recent video gaming—the Holy Land during the Crusades. (This doesn’t touch on the “modern day” setting that frames the Altaïr story, though I actually thought it worked quite well and was very compelling.)

The problem is that the game has you performing the same several tasks over and over and over again. There’s very little variety in mission structure or design. For each target you take on, you have to perform at least two, and can perform as many as six, of the following types of tasks:

  • Follow someone and beat them up. (difficulty: tying my shoes)
  • Find someone, sit on a bench, and press a button to listen to them. (difficulty: walking down the street and then standing in place)
  • Find someone, press a button to listen to them, follow them and then pick their pocket. (difficulty: only frustrating when the game randomly causes you to fail)
  • Talk to an assassin, then kill his targets because he’s either lazy or a jackass within a time limit (difficulty: maddening, because you can’t be detected and there’s a time limit)
  • Talk to an assassin, then pick up random flags because he’s lazy (difficulty: only as bad as the free-running controls, meaning random)

That’s every mission in the game, summed up. The top ones in the list happen more frequently in the beginning, and the lower ones more often towards the end of the game (especially the assassination within a time limit stuff). You can also rescue citizens from being harassed by guards, which makes certain other things easier, but is just an excuse to make you (once again) fight a bunch of dudes.

Once you’ve completed enough of those tasks, you’re given your target and told to off him. There are benefits, to remaining undetected until you perform the deed, but in most cases it doesn’t matter—the target will either run, in which case you can usually catch them, or will turn to fight you, in which case he’s insane. It should be noted that running a dude down who’s on to you is also rather satisfying when it happens the right way.

So you do the above nine times in a row. That is the entire game. Three targets are in each city, and the cities are tied together with an “overworld” that is notable only because every other character in the overworld wants to kill you—and there’s no point to it unless you want to do a collect-a-thon for flags that earns you nothing but an Achievement. Once you’ve been to each city once, you can fast travel there instead of using the hub world—and that’s how you will get around after 1/3 of the game is done.

Which brings us to our next point and the main problem with the game—the main character, or lack thereof.

ALTAÏR IS BORING. Like, Squall Leonhart boring. Maybe even more so.

The character you play in the present time section of the game, Desmond, is infinitely more interesting than Altaïr, and you play as him for maybe an hour, probably more like forty minutes.

Altaïr’s problem is that he has absolutely no motivations or characterizations of any kind. When you are introduced to him, it’s much like a Metroid game: you begin with all kinds of neat abilities that are then magically stripped from you for the sole purpose of making you play the game to regain them. You get back an ability or a weapon with each target you eliminate, which makes you strong enough that you have a better chance of not dying when you take on the next one.

His supposed motivation is that he failed his boss when sent to accomplish a task, so his death is faked and then he is assigned to kill the nine guys in order to regain his status as an Assassin—so the main character goes around killing dudes basically because the ranking old guy on scene tells him to. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out before too long that there’s something deeper behind the killings (because video games can’t ever be simple), but Altaïr just kind of blindly keeps going. He doesn’t have any friends, doesn’t have any personal motivations, no relationships: there’s nothing that makes him relatable in any way.

I suppose the theory is that he’s just supposed to be this awesome mad dog killer type who doesn’t need anyone. It is therefore impossible to relate to him, and consequently to form any kind of emotional attachment to your avatar.

(Now, if you want to talk characters with motivations, we’ll get into a conversation about Ezio (from Assassin’s Creed II) pretty soon, and there you’ll have your main character with motivations. But that is for another time and another post.)

Even with all that said, I’m happy I played it, if only to get a feel for the criticism of the game and to gain an appreciation for the improvements made to the formula in the sequels, which are many and varied. I don’t think I’ll go back to play through it again.

Like I said: it’s a concept in search of a game. It comes close, but doesn’t quite find it, scraping only the surface concepts of what a good sandbox-style game can be like. Fortunately, the second one is the game that they were looking to make, much more realized, detailed, and possessing scope and weight. I’ll be talking about it and Brotherhood soon.

The Limits of Anonymity on WordPress.com

Not long after I began working here at Automattic, I transferred the vast majority of my personal sites over to WordPress.com. (I keep a couple of sites for testing core stuff on an external host.) I did this because there are tremendous advantages to the WordPress.com platform, including what is amazing reliability, faster sites—especially compared to shared hosts, and some features that are unique to WordPress.com and don’t exist currently for core WordPress installations.

(My favorite of those features is Post by Email, and I actually have planned a series of posts talking about the nifty things you get by having your site at WordPress.com. That’s another post or three, though.)

When I was using self-hosted WordPress to design and manage my sites, I was in complete control—or at least in full knowledge—of all of the data, including logs and database information. This meant that I had a pretty good understanding of what of my personal information was being kept, stored, or made available to my host and other parties.

When you’re on WordPress.com, you don’t have access to that information. We’re asked occasionally what information we keep or what personal information is available to someone if we are asked. This week, we published a support page that can be found here that spells out exactly what information we keep and how it can be divulged to third parties. I think this is a great thing to publish for the benefit of our users and to be up-front with them regarding their personal and identifying information.

To quote the support page, here’s the personally identifying information we keep:

We keep the following private data about WordPress.com sites and users:

  • The email address used to create a blog
  • The IP address from which the blog was created
  • The date and time when a blog was created
  • The IP addresses from which blog posts have been published
  • The email and IP addresses of anyone who has left a comment on a blog

Note that, as the article mentions, all of this data is bound by Automattic’s stated privacy policy. This is good.

However, it also means that WordPress.com is not a truly anonymous service. You should keep that in mind when you are signing up for the service and as you are using it. This information is enough to positively identify people in a lot of cases.

This is a lot less information than most service providers collect. For myself, on my self-hosted site on a shared host, I know that at least the following is collected on my activities:

  • My name, billing address, and credit card number
  • The access logs whenever I would FTP or SSH into the site, and likely most actions performed there as well
  • Access logs, including IP addresses, from all users who visited my site
  • My personal information required for WHOIS (and purchasing private registration is not a shield, but without it this information is even publicly available)

Remember that to a court, this information is fair game. It can be subpoenaed or ordered to be turned over by a judge if someone has good cause to request it—and in a lot of cases, providers of the services you use may not tell you the full extent of what they collect or the details behind this information. This is why I’m personally quite happy that we published this support page, to put the information in your hands and help you make an informed decision when choosing whether to use our services at WordPress.com.

(As I mentioned above, I’ll try to give you some more really awesome reasons why you should join us in future posts.)

31

Today was my 31st birthday, and by any reckoning it’s been an amazing year.

  • I left my job of four years at Concordia Publishing House.
  • I started working for Automattic, the best company in the world filled with fine people I now call friends and colleagues.
  • My kids turned 7, 6, 5, and 3. They are getting too big for my good.
  • I made my first trip out of the country (not counting a quick jaunt to Canada when I was a child) – to Lisbon, Portugal and had an amazing time. I really must go back someday.
  • I bought my first digital SLR camera.
  • I submitted my first accepted patch to the core WordPress project.
  • I landed in the hospital with heart trouble and re-affirmed a commitment to better health.
  • I curled for the first time (and definitely not the last).
  • I went to my first WordCamp (in San Francisco, also my first visit to that city).

I’m sure there are many things I’ve done in the past year that I am forgetting here, but it’s been a good one with lots of great experiences shared with lots of people.

Thanks to all of you for making it the best yet. (Especially to my wife, who continues to put up with me for reasons I sometimes cannot fathom.)