Monday, July 30, 2012

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

I don't see many movies, but just for the heck of it thought I'd go ahead and review any I do make it to for this blog.  So, even though it's been out for a few weeks, here is my first review:

The Homeless Nerd Reviews:
The Amazing Spider-Man

At a glance- superhero action, special effects, comedy with some teen angst

What is it? There is a staple in the superhero comic book genera that no hero ever dies. Captain America, Superman, Batman, and so many others have died at one point only to be back in action a few issues later. There is something similar for the superhero movie genera as well, except in reverse. For movies, no hero is allowed to live. Should, heaven forbid, a hero last to two or even, dare they, three movies – well, then it is time for new actors, a new director and reboot the whole story, starting at the origin yet again. Thus, after having three Spider-Man movies, we now have the obligatory reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man.
    I liked the first three movies, and I thought Tobey Maguire was absolutely perfect as Peter Parker. So The Amazing Spider-Man was going to have to live up to its name to win me over. And surprisingly, it did. To be fair, writing a superhero movie is hard since you have the original comic book stories to be faithful to, yet retell in a modern way. Writing a superhero reboot is harder, since you add what the previous movies have done to the mix – so you need to be both the same and different from what was done before you. Pulling it off and making a good movie is quite the feat. The Amazing Spider-Man does a very good job of staying true to the original comics and also being different from the previous movies – while being a well made movie in its own right.

The acting- A big part of its success comes from its cast. We have Andrew Garfield as the lead, Peter Parker aka Spider-Man, and he does a good job. This version of Peter Parker is a little more skater / slacker while still being a genius scientist / inventor – a very hard combination to pull off, and Mr. Garfield does it well. While he may not have exactly the look from the comics, he has a great attitude and presence that more than compensates.
    Emma Stone is Gwen Stacy, and the first big change from the previous movies. There is no Mary-Jane Watson here, but that is okay. Gwen was actually Peter's first love in the comics. Mrs. Stone has a hard role to play, as “the girlfriend” she is given limited screen-time and mostly there to be put in danger. But she does a good job with the lines she's given, and the scene with her and Peter trying to make a first date is a hilarious bit of teen angst.
    Our villain is Dr. Curt Connors aka The Lizard played by Rhys Ifans. I liked Mr. Ifans look and style (different from the comics, but in a good way) however it was sad that his change from humanitarian scientist to evil reptile monster is played out in only 2 home movies. He really needed more time to let us see into his fall from grace. Still, he does a good enough job, and the CGI Lizard looks neat.
    Martin Sheen plays Uncle Ben and Sally Field plays Aunt May, two critical roles to the Spider-Man story. I liked Martin Sheen, he is a more cool, wise-cracking Uncle Ben to go with the new tone of this movie. Sally Field was a bit of a curve ball. Aunt May has always, always been white-haired and her jet-black dyed locks are just not how the character should look from reading the comics. She also gets relatively little time for being such an essential character. Both however are passable.
    The real hidden star is Denis Leary as Gwen's father Police Captain Stacey. I love how even with a serious role Mr. Leary can bring a nice contrasting comedic undertone. He has very few lines, but delivers them all perfectly. Wish we could have seen more of him.
    Fans of the comics/movies may notice the distinct lack of J. Jonah Jameson, as well and Mrs. Watson – but really they were better left out. Wisely I think the writers decided to start with a few core characters and introduce more later – which is a good idea. I think the last movie, Spider-Man 3, was not so great because it tried to deal with too many characters at once, and so did not do any of them justice. So we have something to look forward to in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

The story- If you're talking a Spider-Man origin story there is one key word to know: responsibility. More than any other superhero ever written, Spider-Man is all about the responsibility of being a superhero. Peter makes some key, and fatal (to others of course) mistakes when he first gets his powers – and that is what defines him. While he is a teen, his powers make him grow up very quickly, and he hides a deep maturity behind his wise-cracking crime fighting.
    This is where The Amazing Spider-Man really hit it out of the park for me. They did a great job of weaving that theme throughout the story. There's Peter and how he fails Uncle Ben. Peter contributes to The Lizard's rampage. And poor Peter even does a bad job protecting the city in his first outings as Spider-Man. He fails, a lot like you would expect a teenager suddenly dealing with super-powers to do. From it all though he learns, and becomes a better man for his difficulties. Which, in my opinion, is the best thing a superhero movie teaches – not how cool it is to have powers, but how much harder you have to grow to be worthy of them. This movie really feels like it is a proper Spider-Man story.
    Along with the drama we have some nice comedic moments. Stan Lee, the creator of Spider-Man has made a cameo appearance in every movie – and he has a funny scene as a librarian listening to music while a fight rages behind him. Peter also has his joking around while fighting for his life, something key to the character but not as well developed in the previous movies. And, of course, there's lots of action. The special effects all look good, movements are fluid and dynamic, just like the character is supposed to appear. The story mostly makes sense (hey, superhero movies are not exactly deep), nothing too glaring to distract from enjoying the show. Overall it is a very solid, well-done movie.

My recommendation- Even if you are not a fan of the Spider-Man character, give this one a try. It has a good mix of drama, comedy and action. If you are a fan, you shouldn't be disappointed. Even though it is a new movie and cast, it feels like an old story, something that fits with the character.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Computer Basics - Part 1 - Hardware

Here is the next part of the Computer Basics class.  You can also read Part 0 - Introduction by clicking here.

Part 1 – Hardware

    There is a great saying I read once about advertisements, “The large print giveth, but the fine print taketh away.” There is a similar parallel with computers. Software giveth, it lets your computer do more and better things, but hardware is the fine print, it limits what software you can actually run. So you need to know what hardware makes up your computer, everything you want to do depends on it. And, hardware is how your computer really works, so it's good to know what is going on “under the hood” so to speak.

Desktops vs Laptops
    The first thing to know about hardware is what kind of computer you have: a desktop or laptop.
    Desktop computers are somewhat big and bulky and designed, as the name suggests, to sit on a desk. They tend to be the cheapest of the two, are the easiest to upgrade (add new hardware to), and the hardest to move around.

  Laptops are smaller and easy to carry around. They are more expensive for the same capabilities, since they have to be made lighter and smaller than desktops. Even though they are called laptops you should not, in fact, put them on your lap. They do get hot, possibly very, uncomfortably hot – and they have batteries, which have been known to leak, and battery acid on the lap is not a fun experience. So keep your laptop on a table or other surface.

    While desktops and laptops look different on the outside, they are made up of pretty much the same things on the inside. So the next few parts we talk about are the same for both types.

    The Central Processing Unit (which everybody just calls CPU) is the part that does all the thinking. So how do computers think, you ask? Well, very simply. Computers use electricity to think. Inside the computer is a quartz crystal that resonates, forming a steady beat like a drummer. So this makes a series of peaks and troughs, highs (when the drummer is hitting the drum) and lows (when the drummer is not making any sounds), if you remember High School math, this is a sine wave.
    At every peak, or every drum-beat, the computer thinks. How? By looking for electricity. If there is a little spike of electricity during the beat, we call that the number 1. If there is no electricity during the beat, that is a 0. Since computers think using two numbers, that is called Binary (literally Latin for 'two numbers'). It is a somewhat strange and almost magical process that turns 01001000011010010010000001001101011011110110110100100001 into “Hi Mom!”
    In-between beats, during the silent phases, the computer doesn't do anything. So the faster that beat is, the faster the computer thinks. Well, we measure frequency in Hertz. Computers used to think pretty slow, in only millions of beats per second, or Mega-hertz (MHz). Now they think much faster, in billions of beats per second or Giga-hertz (GHz).
    But even a few billion thoughts per second (well, “processes” technically, but you might as well call it thinking for an analogy) is not fast enough. Computer users and designers wanted even faster. But making an even faster CPU is hard to do. We are talking about a chip smaller than a thumbnail after all. And more electricity means more heat, and heat is bad. The hotter something gets the harder it is to send electricity through it. A CPU can literally think so fast that it melts. In fact every CPU has something called a heat sink. This is a big piece of metal (about the size of a pack of cigarettes in a desktop, laptop ones are about a quarter the size) that is attached directly to the CPU. The larger metal draws heat away from the CPU quickly. Then a fan, or usually 2 or more fans, blow the heat out the back or side. The running fans account for the noise you hear while a computer is turned on (well, most of it).
    So if faster is bad since it means flames and confusion, what to do? Well, the cleaver guys who design CPUs came up with what's called a Multi-core CPU. Instead of one big, fast processor, a multi-core CPU has several smaller, slower processors that split up the work. So with a quad-core (that's 4 CPUs on one chip) each job is broken into 4 parts and each core handles one part, then combines them together. So for each beat instead of thinking once, the quad-core is thinking 4 times. Four times a few billion is fast!
So how fast is fast? Well, the Intel Core i5 is the current mid-range CPU. It is not the slowest, and not the fastest. It runs at about 2.3 to 3.4 GHz and has 2 or 4 cores. The fastest is the i7 Extreme which runs about 3.3 to 3.4 GHz, the same speed as a high-end i5 – but, the i7 has 4 to 6 cores and can “hyper-thread” them, that is, each core can do two things at once. So the i5 can do roughly 8,550,000,000 thoughts per second while the i7 Extreme does roughly 33,500,000,000 thoughts per second (averaging the cores and speeds). Both are incredibly fast.
    Now, while all this is fun to talk about, what does it mean for you? Your CPU is the absolute maximum amount of thinking, or work, that your computer can do. You can't get any faster. So if you want to do big complicated things, like playing 3D games, you need a very fast CPU. If you are just going to read your email, then stop and type a letter, and basically do just one thing at a time – you don't need a very fast CPU. Games are the real problem. Most every new game is 3-Dimensional (or 3D) which means the computer has to create every single inch of everything in the game. Stop and look around you, see just how many inches, how many different surfaces are in the room you are in. Then imagine a big game world the size of a small city. Now add the explosions, people and tanks flying through the air, gunshots and running and, well, I think you get the picture. There is a whole lot of stuff going on. So you need a very fast CPU to keep up with it all.
    What if you don't play games? Well, then you don't need much of a CPU really. Every program has a list of “system requirements.” This is the minimum CPU speed, minimum amount of memory and hard drive space (which we'll cover next) and other things your computer has to have to run the program. But, like I said, for most basic programs even the slowest CPU on the market today is more than fast enough. The biggest program for most people is probably Windows itself. Windows 7 needs just a 1 GHz single-core CPU – the mid-range Intel i5 CPU is 4 to 12 times faster than that!

Memory (RAM)
    While the CPU does all the thinking, it needs something to think about. It needs some kind of memory. There are two kinds of memory in a computer, just like people have two kinds of memory: short-term and long-term. Usually when we say “memory” we are talking about the sort-term kind, called RAM (which stands for Random Access Memory). RAM is memory that is filled only while the computer is running. Turn the computer off and all the RAM goes away. It's where the CPU stores the things it is thinking about at the moment. And just like CPU speed, the size of your RAM can limit the things you can do with your computer.
    So now we need to talk about size. One number, either a 0 or a 1, is called a Bit (b). Eight bits are called a Byte (B). Like with speed, we usually talk about millions (mega- or M) or billions (giga- or G) of bytes. Old computers had several MB of RAM, new computers have GB worth. Generally speaking 2 GB is about the lowest amount of RAM you want to have. 4 GB is a good, comfortable number. And 6 GB is a lot, more than you will likely need – unless you're playing games, which hog up RAM the same way they do CPU speed.
    Since this is all temporary memory used by the computer you almost never have to deal with or think about RAM, except to make sure you have enough to run your programs. If you don't have enough RAM the system will become slow, horribly, painfully, agonizingly slllloooowwwwww. Or, it will just freeze up and nothing will happen at all. So if you don't have enough RAM, you'll know it.

Hard Drives (HDD)
    RAM is temporary memory, it goes away when the power goes off. That's not very convenient. You really need a way to keep things more permanently on the computer (after all, one of the biggest uses of a computer is to have it remember all the stuff you can't). That kind of memory is located in your Hard Drive (or HDD which stands for Hard Disk Drive). The hard drive is a box.

    Inside this box are a couple of round metallic plates and a magnet on a swing-arm. The plates spin at very fast speeds, usually about 5,400 or 7,200 RPM (revolutions per minute, in the ballpark of 170 miles per hour). On each plate is a random scattering of metallic lines (microscopically small). This random pattern is considered 0. The magnet is used to read the lines, and also to write them, that is move them so they are all pointed in the same direction. This ordered set of lines is a 1. Because there are a nearly countless number of these metallic bits once data has been saved to the hard drive it is usually possible to get it back, even if it's been erased. If you really want to guarantee that no-one can see what you've saved you need to hit the hard drive repeatedly with a hammer and break the plates, or use special software that writes stuff over and over thousands of times to mix it all up again.
    Like RAM we measure hard drives in bytes, but you need a whole lot more hard drive space. A small hard drive is about 250 GB, 500 GB is a good size, and 1 TB (tera-byte, that's a trillion bytes) is a very large size. Now, odds are you won't fill even a small hard drive. Like with computer speed, hard drive size has been increasing faster than the average person uses. Remember that a 2-hour DVD movie is about 5 GB (on average), so a 250 GB hard drive could hold 50 movies or 100 hours! That's a lot. Music and pictures are even smaller, from 1-5 MB, so you could have 50,000 high-quality songs are about ten times that in pictures. Most people do not need the latest and largest hard drives.

Video Cards & Monitors
    Back in the day, when I first started using a computer, having 16 colors on the screen was pretty good. When the first 256 color screens came out everyone was amazed. Boy have things changed. Now even the slowest, most basic computer can display millions of colors. Video is another specialty area. Really, only people who play 3D games need to worry about their video cards. But since kids tend to play a lot of games, and also tend to use their parent's computers, I'm mentioning them here. The normal CPU and RAM the computer uses is just fine for anything 2D, like the Internet, Windows, and movies. But 3D graphics take up so much space computers now come with separate video cards. These are basically CPUs and RAM on a card that only handles the video/display. This is called “video memory” to distinguish it from the computer's RAM.
    When you buy a game it will have a list of system requirements, just like any other software. Usually it will mention the amount of video memory needed. Sometimes it will just list the types of video cards needed. There are really two big video card manufacturers, ATI and nVIDIA. They set the standards and features available. So your game might say it needs something like an “ATI 8800 or higher video card.” When you bought the computer it should say somewhere what kind of video card is installed.
    You might, however, have something called an “Integrated” video card, or video chip. Remember that most people do not use all of their CPU speed and RAM space. So, video manufacturers thought, why not use that extra power to run 3D stuff? An integrated video card does just that, it uses the computer's CPU/RAM. This is fine for very basic 3D software, and when the computer has more power than it needs. So older games tend to run just fine on an integrated card. Newer ones, not so much, usually they need a “dedicated” or separate video card. Laptops, to save space and since they are not usually game machines, often have integrated video cards – but so do a lot of low-cost desktops.
    There in one other thing about the video card – it needs something to show it's images on. That's called a Monitor. For desktops a monitor is a separate device that is like a small TV. For laptops the monitor is built into the laptop itself, but usually you can connect to an external monitor, like a projector.

Optical Drives
    Storing things on the computer, in the hard drive, is nice – but what if you want to move things to another computer? What if you want to make a separate copy in case of fire or damage to the computer? That's where the optical drive comes in. An optical drive is a storage device that uses light – which you probably know better as a CD, DVD or Blu-ray disc. All of these use the same basic principle: the disc is coated with a reflective surface (like a mirror), that counts as 1. But parts of that surface are burned, literally, making them black, that counts as 0. Then a laser is used to read the disc, while it is spinning.
    Optical discs are great. The smallest, a CD holds about 700 MB (or, say, 140 Mp3 songs). The mid-sized DVD holds from 4 to 9 GB (that's a 2-hour movie and extras, or over 800 songs). The largest, Blu-ray holds a whopping 50 GB (about 10 DVDs or 20 hours of movies or 50,000 songs). Right now DVDs are the standard, but Blu-ray players are becoming more common. Also, each type of drive can read the older types. So a DVD player can read CDs while a Blu-ray player can read DVDs and CDs both.
Aside from the type of disc, there are 3 other classes: Readable, Writable and Re-writable. All discs are Readable, and every optical drive is a Reader. Writable means that the drive can actually create its own discs. The laser used to read is also used to write, but at a much higher power (called “burning” a disc, which is what it literally does). A writable disc can be written to just once, and usually has a “-R” after its name (so, CR-R, DVD-R and BD-R). You can't erase it, not really, once something is there it is stuck there. Re-writable discs however can be “erased.” These kinds of drives have 3 different laser powers: read, write and erase. They usually have a “-RW” after their name (CD-RW, DVD-RW, BD-RW). Re-writable discs and drives cost the most, not a lot more but they are extra. Usually writing to a disc once is good enough (the -R series), discs are so cheap you can just throw one away and burn a new one. A blank CD costs about 50 cents.
    Optical discs need a bit of care and attention. They are stored outside the computer, and tend to move around, so they can get damaged. Extreme heat or cold can destroy them. They can also get scratched, which means the laser won't reflect off them and the whole disk looks like nothing but 0s to the computer. They can also get oil or other stuff on them. You can wipe off a disc, but you need to do it right. The data on the disc is in a spiral from the outside to the inside, like an old vinyl record (assuming you're young enough to have even seen a vinyl record). Because this spiral is basically a circle, scratches that move with the disc, in a circle, are the worst – they destroy big blocks of data. A scratch that goes perpendicular to the disc, from inside to outside, is the least damaging – since it only takes out a little piece here and there. If you wipe off a disc, go in a straight line from the inside to the outside – do not go in a circle like you were polishing the disc, that could cause even more damage. Discs are actually designed to take some abuse. A CD can really hold 1,400 MB of data – but you only get to use half that, 700 MB. The other half is reserved for “error correction code,” basically a backup of the data in case the disc gets scratched. DVDs and Blu-ray discs work the same way. Still, a little care goes a long way – so keep your discs in a protective sleeve of some kind, out of heat and cold, wipe from center to outside in a straight line, oh yeah, and don't touch the reflective surface – your fingerprints can make the disc hard to read. It's not too hard.

Network Cards
    Optical discs let you move information from one computer to another, but there is an even better way: networking. Networking means directly connecting 2 or more computers. This is done in one of two ways: Wired or Wireless.
    In the old days the only way to network computers was to run cables, called Wired Networking. Each cable went from a computer to another device, usually a Router. The Router's job was to keep track of which computer was talking to which computer. Kind of like the Postman. Routers delivered the mail between each computer on the network. Pretty much every house that has an Internet connection has a wire from the wall to a Router.
    Now, however, many computers (and virtually every laptop) is Wireless. A Wireless Network uses radio waves, like the ones cell phones and baby monitors use. Since all the data is broadcast through the air, you can walk around with a wireless connection and not have to worry about tripping over a cable. However, wireless connections tend to have more troubles than wired ones (you have to pay for that convenience) – after all, lot and lots of things use radio waves now, and lots of things can block radio waves. Cell phones, baby monitors, radios, microwaves, air conditioning, the weather – there are so many ways that a wireless signal can be disrupted. But for the most part it is very useful, and I'd wager the majority of computers networked right this moment are wireless.
    Making a network does one thing, it connects what's on one computer to what's on another computer. That's really useful if you want to share quickly and easily between computers. There are 2 kinds of networks. A Local Area Network (or LAN) is made up of computers that are all near each other, like in the same house or building. Lots of businesses use a LAN, not so many homes. The type of network you're likely most familiar with is the Wide Area Network (WAN), where computers are very far apart, like the Internet. The Internet is a very big topic, and one that has its own chapter later in this class.
To make a network you need the right hardware. I don't think I've ever seen a computer (in the last 20 years at least) that didn't have a wired network port (looks like a bigger phone jack). And some desktops and virtually all laptops come with a wireless networking card (which may or may not have an antenna you can see).

    So far we've talked about the 6 major pieces of hardware in your computer. I haven't covered everything inside the computer, but those 6 are the most important for you to know something about. However, there is also a lot of hardware on the outside of the computer. Most external hardware connects the same way, by USB (short for Universal Serial Bus). USB is a wonderful thing, simple and easy to use.
    A USB connector has two types, called A and B. The A connector is a flat rectangle that is “keyed” - which means it only goes in one way. Try to put it in upside-down and it won't fit. Which is rule number 1 when connecting hardware – don't force anything! If something does not want to connect then try turning the connector upside-down and see if that works. Occasionally you might need to use a little force to plug something in, but that is unusual. The USB A connector goes into your computer. Usually the device your are plugging in will have a USB-B connector. The B side looks like a small house, it's square at the bottom and has a sloped roof on top. The two different connectors mean you can't accidentally plug something in the wrong way, they only fit one way, the right way.
    So what might you connect to your computer with USB? Well, odds are you have a mouse and keyboard. Now, you have to have a keyboard, most computers won't even turn on without one plugged in. And everything can be done with a keyboard. The mouse is optional. It is good for clicking on things, but the keyboard can also do that. So if you are really, really good at touch-typing you might use your keyboard almost all of the time. If, like me, your typing skills are not so great, you'll love your mouse. Other common devices you can connect include cell phones, mp3 players and printers. Printers let you print stuff, very handy. Cell phones and Mp3 players can hold music and information on them, and share that with your computer. This is called “synchronizing” or “sync” for short. If you sync your mp3 player to your computer then every time you add new music to your computer your mp3 player will add it too – just plug it in. That's convenient. Or you could sync your cell phone's calendar to your computer, and see appointments you make on either.
    Using other devices is a little beyond what we're looking at in this class, so I'm not going to cover anything in detail. But it is good to know that you can add new abilities and features to your computer by plugging in new hardware.

The Important Computer Information Sheet
    At the end of this class, in Appendix A, is the Important Computer Information Sheet. This is a very handy page to print and fill out. It is a place to record details about your computer that you might need later.
The first section is for general details. Your computer's manufacturer (like Dell or HP or Gateway) and model number (like Optiplex 550) and serial number (which is usually a lot of letters and numbers). This is so you can identify your computer, in case you have to call for technical support, look up information about it, or if it gets stolen. Then there's a section for warranty info. Do you have a warranty, when does it expire and what number do you call all go here. This is in case you need technical support from the manufacturer – which is free (well, odds are you paid something for it, but each call and replacement parts are free). If your computer doesn't have a warranty then you might want to record a local computer shop here, just so you know who to call if things go wrong.
    The second section is for hardware details. How fast is your CPU, how much RAM and HDD space, what kind of video card and optical drive. This is so when you go to buy a new program you can tell if you meet the “system requirements.”
    Lastly is your Operating System (OS), the OS Product Key and any other Product Keys you have. We'll talk about product keys later, but let me mention something right now. If you have Windows, like the majority of computers, then you have a sticker on your computer (top or back for desktops and bottom for laptops) with the product key. It is 25 numbers and letters long and in really small type. This is a very important sticker. Each Windows disc is identical, what makes your copy of Windows legally yours is that product key sticker. So make a copy of it, it's worth about $200. If something gets spilled on it, or the kids decide to draw on it, or the cat scratches it – you are going to lose about $200 when you have to buy a new sticker. For laptops I recommend putting a piece of clear packing tape over the sticker, to help protect it.
So, the Important Computer Information Sheet is a handy tool for you to remember what all is in your computer. You might need it when buying new software, and it is handy to have when you call or take your computer to be repaired – a technician can find out all that information on their own, but it is more convenient to have it up front (plus, you'll look like you really know your stuff).

This finishes our look at hardware, in the next section we'll start on the most important piece of software on your computer, your Operating System.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Computer Basics - Part 0 - Introduction

Here is the first part of my computer basics class, it's jsut the general introduction but I wanted to get it posed as quickly as possible.

Computer Basics Class

For Windows

What is a computer?
    Imagine if I gave you a rock. You probably wouldn't be very impressed. But, imagine if it was a magic rock. All you had to do was say a magic word, and that rock would turn into a hammer. Say another magic word, and it would turn into a pencil. Another magic word and it would become a washing machine. On and on, with thousands of magic words, each one turning that rock into a different tool. That would be one handy rock, right?
    Well, that rock is a computer.
    Every tool is built for a purpose. Hammers hammer nails (or hit things in general), pencils write, washing machines wash. A computer though is a very different type of tool. A computer was built for one purpose – to listen to you and do what you tell it to do. That's what makes a computer so special, that's why they can be found just about everywhere, because a computer does not have one specific purpose – instead it does anything it can that you tell it to do. This is a great power, the infinite possibility of doing anything you can think of, and a great responsibility, because you have to know how to speak your computer's language.
As someone who teaches computers, I often hear people say that they can't learn how to use a computer, or that it is too hard, or that they are computer illiterate. Well, so was I. I spent several years as a bread baker and pastry cook before I started working with computers. One day I went to work for WINN Ministries, and they didn't need a bread baker they needed a computer technician. So I started learning how computers work, and how to fix them, the hard way. Which made me realize something.
    Learning how to use a computer is exactly like learning a new language!
    Which makes sense. After all, a computer listens to what you tell it to do and then does that to the best of its ability. So what you need is to learn it's language. I learned that hardest and best way, by immersion. I went to an office full of computers every day and had to learn how to talk to them. It wasn't easy, but I soon got the feel of it. Most people don't learn that way however. Just like visiting a foreign country on a short vacation, most people struggle to understand their computer and get it to understand them. The younger generation has an easier time of it, because young people learn languages quickly and easily compared to adults. But in the same way that anyone can learn a new language, anyone can learn how to talk to and get the most out of their computer. Anyone. Take that from the bread baker who has been a certified computer technician for the last 9 years.

What this class is about
    My goal in this class is to start teaching you the language of computers. To get you more comfortable knowing what your computer is saying to you, and how you can talk to it. A computer is really the greatest tool, you can do thousands of different things with it, once you can talk to it properly. Like any language it is going to take time and work to get comfortable speaking to your computer, and at the beginning things will be unclear. Don't worry. Time and practice are all you need. I can fix computers because I've spent so much time around them. Once you've put in as many hours as I have, you'll be an expert at using your computer too. So just be patient and keep at it. I teach this class one-on-one, but I've also written it down so that you can come back to it, re-read it, and let it slowly sink in until it becomes a natural part of you.
    This is a Beginner's class, it is meant to start with the most basic concepts and give you a good foundation to build on. So there will be plenty of things I don't cover. Just like how you learn a language from the most basic words and concepts and then expand on that. I'm also writing Advanced and Expert classes to help you grow beyond what I'll talk about here. Likewise, I'm going to talk in very general terms about all the things a computer can do, but I also have more specific classes I'm working on. So think of this as just the beginning of your education, with many more new and fun things to learn about your computer and what it can do for you.

Hardware vs Software
    So let's start with a few new words then: Hardware and Software. Software is the language you use to speak to your computer. It is how you tell your computer what to do. Well, not you exactly. Odds are somebody else wrote the software you are using. Whoever wrote it, software is the instructions to make the computer do something (from send an email to play a song).
    But, while software tells your computer what to do, Hardware is what your computer is actually capable of doing. Hardware is all the physical “stuff” of your computer. The keyboard, mouse, box, all the things you can touch and feel (unlike software which is just bits of data your computer can read but you wouldn't understand). While software empowers your computer, letting it do new things, hardware limits your computer.
    The vast majority of the time you are using your computer will be with software. You will be using programs to do things. But even though hardware is something you don't really need to know a lot about (until it breaks, which is likely when you would call a technician like me) there are a few things you should know. So that is where we are going to begin, talking briefly about the hardware that makes up your computer.

To be continued in Part 1 - Hardware

TB- Hooks

    I am currently typing up my cmoputer class, so that is using most of my time.  But I wanted to post something, so here is another piece of Travellers Beyond.  The Intention Categories (last post) cover what sort of thing a character wants to do, Hooks cover what sort of power, ability or item is used to carry out that desire.  TB has 10 Hooks, and here's the section describing them in general:


    So far the character sheet has been defining the average man, the things that virtually all people have in common. With the hooks however, now we get into what makes your character different from all the others. Hooks cover special abilities, powers and super-advanced skills, allies and equipment, things that not everyone has access to. But most characters are not common people, so most characters you make will have one or more Hooks.
    There are 10 Hooks total, divided into two sets of 5 – the Metaphysical Hooks cover things that are based on magic or special powers and abilities, as well as relationships, study and dedication. The Special Item Hooks cover equipment, things outside the character (though possibly implanted in them), and how the character uses outside items. Within each Hook there are several Types and Categories, which I'll describe later in the more detailed Hooks chapters. For now, here is an overview of the 10 Hooks:

The Metaphysical Hooks
Extraordinary Abilities (EA) – powers, super-human abilities, leaping tall buildings and out-running trains all fall under this Hook. You may have been born with these abilities, or perhaps some accident or experiment gave them to you. Regardless, they are now a part of you, as natural as breathing or moving.
Martial Arts (MA) – some are not born great, some make themselves great. The Martial Artist is one who has dedicated themselves to the pursuit of perfection – weather in combat or in their own development, perhaps in mastery of a skill. From bare-fisted warriors and master trackers to enlightened sages and trick-shooting circus performers; MA is all about improving oneself and one's abilities.
Pattern User (PU) – wizards, priests, those who have learned and studied how to bend reality fall under this Hook. This is part EA and part MA, it is a learned Hook, one of study and dedication, but also one of incredible semi-innate powers and abilities.
Split Being (SB) – EA is all about the powers and abilities that are added to your character – but what if your abilities come from the fact that you are no longer the same type of being you used to be? The Split Being Hook covers characters who have been changed: from vampires and werewolves to a fragmented psyche that turns you into an enormous green rage-monster.
Allies & Influence (AI) – having the right friends can be a power in itself. From companions who follow and assist you to super-secret spy organizations that outfit you in high-tech gadgets. With AI it is your relationship with someone or something else that gives you power.

The Special Item Hooks
Cybernetic Implants (CI) – with this Hook, something foreign has been implanted into your body. We have this Hook today, artificial hips allow people to move after injury. But it could also be a symbiotic organism or even a magically-grafted demon's arm.
Weapons & Equipment (WE) – having the right tool for the right job is a power as well. The WE Hook covers everything from bone clubs to supercomputers and even magical objects like flaming swords and crystal balls.
Vehicles & Constructs (VC) – vehicles from a sailboat to a starship sailing between the stars all go here. But so do houses, bases and other buildings – even pocket dimensions.
Fabrication & Harvesting (FH) – while the other Special Item Hooks are about having some item the FH Hook is about making your own items. With this Hook you can craft/create any of the others yourself.
Hacking/Cracking (HC) – lastly, the HC Hook is all about being able to manipulate other objects and even people and things. From the computer hacker to the time-traveller ('hacking' time/space), from master spies ('hacking' organizations) to psychological warfare ('hacking' people) – this Hook is all about taking something else, something not yours, and using it to your advantage.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

TB- Intention Categories

    The Intention Category system originally started out as a way to divide skills into related groups.  But it has grown as I've realized that they cover all the different things you can do in the game.  So here's a look at TB's IC system:

Intention Categories

    The ICs are meant to be a quick way to compare characters and what their focus is. Many games use a “Class” system, like the Fighter, Thief, Cleric and Wizard. Typically the Fighter kills stuff (or stands around and gets hit, depending on your game), the Thief sneaks and disarms traps, the Cleric heals everybody and the Wizard does massive damage to everything in sight. Okay, that's fine to a point – the problem is that it's stereotyping. What about the smart fighter who excels at tactics and leadership? Or the war-priest who flies into a divine fury and slaughters the enemies of the faith? Or the con-man, who doesn't bother learning how to pick a lock because he just talks the owner into opening it? Or the wizard who is what the word's actually derived from, wise and knowledgeable? I could go on, but I hope this illustrates the problem with classes in many games: they limit freedom to create the kind of character you want to play, instead forcing you to play a stereotype.
    TB tries to combat this by instead focusing on what your character does, with the IC system. The ICs are active, they are how you approach the world and what you like to do. There are 8 Intention Categories:

Labor (LBR) – doing work with your own hands, brains, or with other living beings is covered under Labor. Beyond basic physical labor this IC covers- sports, games, surveyors, logistics (knowing how to get the right tools to the right place at the right time) and other “white-collar” activities too.
Technical (TEC) – operating machines, computers, and whatever other devices all go here. Repairing, creating and modifying machines is also a part of this IC.
Knowledge (KNW) – the Knowledge IC is all about perception and understanding. What you can see, and how well you can understand what you see go here. This also covers how to hide and deceive as well.
Warfare (WAR) – in this case we mean Warfare to be direct, personal combat to harm or disable another being (as well as avoiding said harm). Blowing up a building is actually Technical, so is working a siege engine. Using the weapons on a vehicle is Direction, which covers vehicles and such [though, I do debate changing that and making the piloting DIR and the shooting WAR and working on-board sensors or computers or such TEC -CJ].
Direction (DIR) – movement, of oneself or by a vehicle, and navigation, these are the Direction IC. If it's about going from point A to point B then it's here.
Holistic (HOL) – Holistic is all about actions that directly relate to other living beings – like teaching or healing.
Environmental (ENV) – no man is an island, the world is all around each of us; and the Environmental IC is about how to deal with it.  From building shelter, to finding food and dealing with animals - ENV covers everything "wilderness" related.
Interpersonal (INP) – not only are we surrounded by the world, but we are also surrounded by our fellow beings, which is where the Interpersonal IC comes in to play. Anything dealing with relationships between people goes here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

TB- Weapon Categories / Skills

    One of the key parts of Travellers Beyond I'm trying to finish is combat - since that is such a core part of most games, it makes a good starting point.  So here is what I've worked up on weapons, how to classify them for skills and relevant rules.  you'll note there are still some blank spaces and question marks, TB is very much a work in progress, but I think you can see how comprehensive I'm trying to make it:


    Every attack is made with some kind of weapon. Even if it is natural like a fist, or improvised like a frying pan. So let's look at how we define weapons:
    The first grouping is in how close to the user the weapon is. Weapons that are a part of the user, like Unarmed weapons, rely on the user's abilities (so H-Scaled users usually have H-Scaled attacks). However Contained weapons, like firearms, do not depend on the power/strength of the user to do their damage – and thus tend to be higher than H-Scaled in damage. At the farthest end, Independent Weapons might have their own targeting skill, and not need the user for anything (except maybe to pick out which target to shoot).

Weapon Types-
Unarmed – innate/racial attacks
Symbiotic – weapons that are tied to the body (ie, EA and CI abilities)
Extension – weapons that are extensions of the body (ie, swords and bows)
Contained – weapons that are separate from the body (ie, firearms)
Independent – weapons that act on their own with minimal direction/requirements from the user (ie, AI-driven auto-blasters, motion-sensing machine guns)

    In combat Range is a very important factor. If you can hit the other guy from farther away than he can hit you, you are almost guaranteed to win. So there are two classes of weapons representing this.

Weapon Classes-
Melee – work within short range / a few feet, or even direct contact.
Ranged – can travel farther than melee, even beyond line of sight.
Indirect ?? - I'm thinking we need another category for indirect weapons, like siege engines and artillery, since while they are ranged they work a bit differently
Placed ?? - also placed weapons, like mines and traps, seem like they could easily make their own category

    With those two types and classes, let's look at the different Weapon Groups:

Unarmed Weapon Groups-
Strikes (?) – xxx
Kicks (?) – xxx
Grabs (?) – xxx
xxx – xxx (um, humans don't really have any ranged unarmed attacks ?)(what animal attacks maybe, like quills or spit ??)

Symbiotic Weapon Groups-
xxx – xxx
xxx – xxx
[Patterns/spells? Cybernetic weapons, Extraordinary Abilities ? Anything else ?]

Extension Weapon Groups-
Clubs – a solid weight used to hit / bash opponents. Does Impact damage by default. Little extra damage beyond the user's Strength.
Short blades – smaller edged weapons, one foot or shorter in length. Does Wounding damage by default. Difficult to parry with, but faster to use.
Long blades – edged weapons over one foot long. Does Wounding damage by default. The middle-ground weapon, neither exceptionally bad or good at anything.
Axes – a curved or perpendicular edge that is backed by weight. Does Wounding damage by default. Difficult to parry with, and a slow attack speed, but does high damage.
Shafted – a club or blade or axe mounted on a long shaft / handle. Greatest range, but very weak against opponents who close within that range. Slowest, most defensive type.
Articulated – a chain, hinge or some flexible material allowing extra speed (and therefore force) to be generated. Most difficult type to use, often potentially hazardous to the user.
Mixed – a single weapon that has two or more of the above types merged together, or a weapon that is capable of changing its type in combat.
Thrown – an object moved at range entirely by the user's Strength.
Slings – a strip of material used to propel an object.
Bows – bent wood under tension to magnify the user's Strength in damage – but still requiring sufficient Strength to draw / use.

Contained Weapon Groups-
xxx – xxx (um, a lightsaber is the only kind of contained melee I can think of)(this is a hard one, because it has to not rely on the user's strength/ability – so a vibro-blade has its own power supply and cuts easier, but seems like it still relies on the user's strength, it just multiplies it better. The lightsaber, that seems like it does so much damage that no matter who wields it it is deadly, but other than something so specific, what is there?? maybe the WH40K Chainsword ??)
Crossbows – a bow mounted to a stock, using a winch or other device to generate the required tension, thus allowing weaker users to get off powerful shots.
Handguns – the smallest firearms, usually one-handed.
Sub-machine Guns (SMG) – larger than a pistol, and designed to fire multiple shots.
Shotguns – are larger firearms, rifle-sized, that fire large shells. They are usually mid-ranged, but the larger shell allows for more ammunition types than the typical rifle.
Rifles – are firearms with long barrels, allowing greater range and accuracy.
Man-portable Weapons (MPW) – like rocket launchers and grenade launchers, weapons meant to take on very large or tough targets (almost always V Scaled damage or higher).

Independent Weapon Types-
Mines / Tripwires – these weapons are placed in one spot and wait for the enemy to come to them. Placement, stealth and guiding / forcing the enemy's movement are vitally important to the success of this type.
hover / personal shield / covering – weapons that move on their own around the user attacking anything that comes close ?? generally do not take any “hands” to wield, but have some type of time/power limit ??
Grenades (??) – xxx (they are kind of Thrown, yet also Contained – so do they really go here instead ??)
Guided – weapons that need the user to choose targets, but fire on their own.
Autonomous – weapons that choose their own targets and fire on their own.
Mobile – these look, move and shoot on their own.

A Day On The Streets

    So, what is it like living on the streets?  Maybe you've wondered.  Probably you haven't.  But I'm going to tell you anyways.  Here's a rundown of a typical day:

5:00am - Wake Up - I get up when the sun does, or just a bit before.  Have to.  I sleep in an alley behind a business, and I don't want to disturb anyone working there or a random customer; so I get up and out of the way before they arrive.

5:30am - Father Woody's Haven Of Hope - I go every weekday to Father Woody's, which is an awesome day shelter for the homeless.  I get a shower there, but you have to get in line pretty early since there are a few hundred other people who want a shower.  So even though they open about 7am I am in line at 5:30.  That's the really annoying part about being homeless, always standing in line waiting.  At about 8am they serve breakfast, and you can get some yogurt and pastries as well.  By 9 to 9:30 I get my shower called and get cleaned up.  I don't carry around enough clothes to change every day, but the shower at least helps.  After the shower I leave.  This is the only meal and time I'll stay at someplace that helps the homeless.  I could easily eat 4 or 5 times a day, but I don't like crowds.

9 - 9:30am - Library - I usually get the library by 9:30 and they open at 10 during the week.  I go straight up to the computer center and use my 2 hours to check email, work on this blog, and type up my class or game.  I've got a little thumb drive I save everything on.  By noon when I'm out of computer time I go down and find a spot to sit, grab a few books, and read or write my ever-growing mess of paper notes.  Mon and Tues the library's open until 8pm, which means I go straight to my campsite after, but Wed, Thurs and Fri it closes at 6pm.

5:30pm - Out Reading - most days the library closes early, so I just wander down to the park, or the bridge on Broadway, and read a book.  I usually go through 2 books a day (I've always been a fast reader) and mostly I like science fiction and fantasy, but I'll occasionally read something else that just looks good.

6:45pm - Back To Campsite - I try to get back to my alley about 7pm, that way everybody inside has left work for the night.  I'm up and reading or listening to music until after the sun sets around 8:30, then I set up my sleeping bag and turn in for the night.  My alley is nice, usually pretty quiet, and has very little foot-traffic - which is good since sleeping outside is somewhat risky.  I don't like sleeping in the open where any crazy passer-by or the cops could be a rude awakening.  Then I sleep until morning and start it all over again.

    I know, a wildly exciting life, isn't it?  This is a typical day.  On the weekends Father Woody's is closed, but I have other places I can eat at, and the library is only open from 1pm to 5pm.  On holidays both close, and that really stinks.  Then I just wander around and read.  Trying to get into some day labor means waking up at 3am (hard to do without an alarm clock) to get to the center by 4, then waiting around until 8-10am hoping to catch one of the very few tickets.  Usually not, and so the morning is just a waste.  Sometimes you get lucky and spend until 5pm shoveling rocks or sweeping up a construction site - for about $50.  Means missing breakfast though, and spending money on eating (which is hard when you have so little).  And day labor has been very scarce recently.  While there are a few places that give cots or space inside to sleep, you have to get in line at least an hour, usually 2, early to get a space - then sleep in a big room with up to 100 other guys (noisy, smelly, not easy to sleep in) and still have to get out around 5:30 or 6am.  Not worth it.  I'd much rather sleep on my own in my little spot than be crammed in with a bunch of strangers.  Even though I'm technically breaking the law by trespassing (or, if sleeping in a public space, violating the new anti-homeless anti-camping law, you just can't win) I make sure to clean up after myself and stay out of the way.
    It makes for long, boring, and unpleasant days.  Living on the streets is not something I'd recommend.  But it happens.  I didn't plan on ending up here, but, well, here I am.  I try to make the most of it.  Teaching my student how to use her computer is a very welcome break.  I broke down and spent some money to see the new Spider-Man movie, which was great, and also a welcome change of pace.  You take the little moments when they come.  Someday I'd like to get out of this situation, but getting a job is hard enough - getting a job while homeless is much, much harder.  Particularly in my field: computer geeks tend to be neat, dress nice, and have cars - things I don't.  Hard to carry a week's worth of dress clothes in a backpack, along with anything else.  But we'll see what happens.
    So there you have it, my life on the streets.  Other homeless people might have much different routines, this is just what works for me.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

My Travellers Beyond Role-Playing Game

    Ever since High School I have been designing an RPG called Travellers Beyond (or just TB for short).  It has taken literally decades to work on because 1) I've been designing it as a hobby in my spare time, 2) I don't really play much anymore, and 3) it is a huge, complicated game.  Currently, having an excess of time on my hands, I have been devoting at least an hour of every day working on the game.  I can only use the library computers for 2 hours a day (sadly I don't have one of my own anymore), but I have managed to type about 160 pages - which is about half-way to the completed, basic game.
    I'm going to be posting parts of the game as I work on them, just for the heck of it and because I'd love to get feedback on if the game sounds promising or like the deluded ramblings of a madman :)  But first, a quick overview of what TB is about.
    TB is a universal, customizable role-playing game.  Universal because it is designed to handle any type of setting and characters and abilities.  From fantasy to science-fiction, wizards to cybernetic dragons, from leaping tall buildings in a single bound to a pet dinosaur.  A part of what has taken so long in designing TB is continually stretching and expanding the rules to cover every story I have read or seen.
    Customizable is because TB has several levels of detail, from "rules lite" to "rules heavy" as well as different methods for rolling dice / resolving conflicts.  The many different styles of games are just like the many different settings - and TB tries to cover everything so that you can make the game you like, in content as well as feel and mechanics.
    Role-Playing Game is something I take seriously.  I read an awesome post by Justin Alexander on his blog The Alexandrian about dissociated mechanics (  These are rules that the Player thinks about, but that the Character does not.  Like the "usable three times per day" abilities in Pathfinder/DnD.  The Player has to track the uses, but what exactly is that Character thinking?  Why is it only three times, why not four?  It is a break from actually playing a character, instead you're "gaming the system."  I loved the post because it articulated something I have felt since designing TB - every rule, every effect needs to have a role-playing reason behind it.  That is the only way to maintain a logical system, and it helps keep the player in character.  I have tried very hard in designing TB to avoid any dissociated mechanics, even traditional ones like experience and character creation.
    TB is a huge, potentially wonderful game - if I can write it right, and if I can ever finish it.  Starting soon I'll begin posting sections of the rules and I welcome any and all comments.

Individual Computer Training

    Being homeless is a lot of things.  Boring is one of them.  Standing in line to get food or a shower for hours a day, walking to get around just to kill time, not having anyplace you need to be or anything you need to do.  It is not fun.
    While I do not currently have a job, I do want to work.  And one way is by providing computer training to anyone who's interested.  My first student is a very nice lady who volunteers with one of the food lines I go to.  And I would love to have even more students.  If you want to learn how to use a computer, weather you are a beginner or have some experience, I'd be glad to share what I know.  I designed a roughly 8-10 hour long class, broken up into 2 hour meetings over 5 days.  I am at the Central Branch of the Denver Public Library every day it is open, and that's a good place to meet if you have a laptop.  Or I could meet at someone's home or another location, provided I've got the bus fare.  I am not a business, so I do not have a specific rate I charge for teaching - rather I ask that anyone donate however much they can afford and think the class is worth.
    I will also gladly answer questions via email on any computer-related topic.  I don't know everything, but I can learn anything - so if you have a question I'll find the answer.  To ask a question, or set up a meeting time, just email me at:  Keep watching this blog too, as I type up my class (it's on paper and in my head right now) I will post it here.

Hello World

    My name is Christopher, and I am The Homeless Nerd.  I moved to Denver, CO in April of 2012 and things did not go the way I planned.  Now I'm living on the streets.  But even though I may be unemployed, for the moment, I still want to do something meaningful.  I don't panhandle or fly a sign.  Instead, I've decided to share what I know with anyone who'll listen.  So, on this blog I am going to talk about being homeless (something I'm sure few people have experienced themselves), I'm also going to share my development of my role-playing game, Travellers Beyond, and my knowledge of computers, which I teach.  Hopefully you can find something interesting, amusing or even informative here.