Category: Review

Emojis Suck, an Android Keyboard Adventure

So, if you have an Android phone like myself, and you use the default keyboard like myself, and you’re on Kit Kat, the latest update, like myself, then your texting screen looks something like this:

googleboard

Which is okay. It functions as a keyboard. But, and this is the largest problem by far, that completely fucking asinine emoticon button is cornered between the backspace key and the period key, which are probably the second- and third-most pressed buttons on the keyboard, after spacebar.

And if you graze the emoticon button, then the backspace key moves. So if you’re typing fast, you can’t even delete all the happy faces and anchors you just typed without seriously hunting for the stupid thing.

This button didn’t use to exist all the time, but now it does, and it’s pissed me off enough that I’ve gone looking for another keyboard, because that’s a thing you can do with Android. So I went off to Google and found four hip new keyboards, collected from a couple different posts, for trying.

First was Minuum, a tiny tiny keyboard that prides itself on maintaining maximum screen real estate. There are only like 10 buttons, and you let the autocorrect do the rest. It’s an interesting concept. Ultimately, though, it was really hard for me to hunt for letters, and adding symbols is very nontrivial. I don’t want a learning curve for my keyboard. Next!

Next was Dextr, a “nu” idea for keyboards. Seriously, go click on that link, and tell me how completely arbitrary that layout looks. The letters are laid out in alphabetical order, and the edge letters are too close to the edge of the screen for me to hit them reliably (I have an OtterBox on my phone, because I drop it sometimes). It seems like something that could maybe work if you took the time to learn it, but again, that’s not the goal. Next!

Third was SwiftKey, which is a fairly straightforward alternative keyboard. It’s best known for its Swype features, but has other simple features like being able to move and resize it, as well as silly features like applying themes and syncing your autocorrect data to the cloud. I played with it for a while, it was fine, though I didn’t feel it offered anything over the default keyboard (the emoticon button is still kind of there, too, but you have to hold the enter key).

Fourth was TouchPal. Don’t be led astray by the app name, it really has very little to do with emojis in its free form. I’ve seen TouchPal described as a keyboard with too many features for its own good, but honestly you can turn off almost anything, so it ends up just requiring slightly more configuration out of the box. Here’s a shot of the same message link as above, but with the TouchPal keyboard:

singlekey

 

So right away you notice there’s lots of buttons at the top. These are sort of customizable, and actually the part I like the least about TouchPal. The hand lets you access settings (neat) as well as themes (don’t care) and the store (don’t care). The EN icon lets you switch keyboards and languages (more on that in a second). The <I> gives you four arrow keys and a host of select/copy/paste buttons, which are fantastic. You won’t use them much, but man is selecting exact text hard on a small screen. The + just lets you add other shortcuts, which I don’t remember and aren’t important. (The V shrinks the keyboard.)

The number/symbol pad is laid out well, in my opinion, it has numbers in the num pad format, instead of across the top row. There is no possible way to access emoticons from this screen. In fact I don’t even remember where they where, or where they could be. They’re just gone.

Already this seems good enough for me. There are a couple small tweaks you can make to autocorrect and things that are nice. Nothing that would change my decision but they certainly reinforce it. You’ve sold me. So what’s behind the EN button?

Well, you can actually swap keyboard layouts in the same language. If you had a flip phone with texting years back, you’re familiar with T9, which was the way to text on a phone without a keyboard. You just clicked the buttons in the right order and the phone’s dictionary figured out what you were trying to say. There’s a T9 option, which I didn’t take a picture of but looks like you’d expect.

What completely blows me away is this intermediate mode, termed T+:

doublekey

For a person with fat fingers who types fast, this layout is a godsend. I think I’ve had to pick the second guessed result, instead of the first, maybe once in the last day or so. It is so incredibly tight. Sometimes it’s even smart enough to split up two words you’ve typed back to back (sometimes I miss the space bar).

If you’re that person, and you also like to throw in non-dictionary words that you could conceivably reuse (like “Spelunky”, for example), then it is exactly two buttons presses to switch back into full-keyboard mode, where you can type your word normally, and it is exactly one button press after you’ve completed your word to add it to your personal dictionary. (If you don’t want to save a word, like “aaaahhhh!”, then you don’t need to dismiss any dialogs or click on anything special, you just press twice to switch keyboards, type your garbage word, then keep typing or switch keyboards again.)

Spoiler: that person is me, and maybe it’s you, and maybe you should pick up TouchPal if you have an Android phone and you hate the emoticon button, or you have fat fingers, or you just want to be like me in all the small ways.

Final Results of the Steam Summer Sale

Chuck’s Challenge 3D: It’s certainly not Chip’s Challenge, but in a lot of ways that’s a good thing. The graphics aren’t always on-par in terms of readability (and are occasionally just weird and incorrect) but the game itself is basically Chip’s Challenge++ and I’m okay with that. Easy to drop in and out of.

Pac-Man Championship Edition: What an interesting game. It really has nothing at all to do with Pac-Man. Well it sort of does. You chomp around and collect dots and fruit as they appear, and periodically find a power pellet and go to town on the sometimes 50+ ghosts that are trailing you. It’s a fast-paced arcade-type game.

Monaco I honestly haven’t done much with yet — it seems like it’s a lot better suited to local co-op or playing with friends. At least in the first few levels, which was all I tried at first, it doesn’t explain the rules very well. Might have to come back to this one with someone else in the room.

Borderlands 2, GOTY. Bought it mostly so I could play with friends. I wasn’t the biggest fan ever of the first one — clunky interface and a big empty world. This game, as far as I can tell thus far, doesn’t change much of that, but Borderlands was always 1000% better with friends. Also, just in case you didn’t know, the GOTY comes with most of the major DLCs, not all — you miss out on the extra cosmetic stuff for your character as well as (I think) the last DLC giving you extra levels for your character.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive: Saw it on sale, was curious about it. A coworker summed up CS for me really well: “play gun game and deathmatch like a casual, have fun.” That’s most of what I’ve done so far and it’s a blast. I don’t have a lot of desire to get into the competitive modes, but it’s a change-up from TF2 or Borderlands or what have you.

Crimsonland: A twin-stick shooter, remade from its original version for Steam and 2014. It’s fun. I like it. I wish the stick controls were slightly different — you have to actually pull the trigger to shoot, which feels really awkward, and you can’t aim at all long-range. Keyboard + mouse feels way better, which kind of goes against the whole twin-stick philosophy. It has lots of co-op potential though, and plenty of content in weapons and skills and missions.

Less than $30 all told. Not bad.

Sam reads the World-Herald

Today’s news is interesting so I felt like writing a bit about it.

Lots of talk about the Pope, who’s now been the Pope for a year, and what this means for Catholics and the general religious everywhere. A generous portion of my family is Catholic, and though I can’t say I believe in anything myself I think the fact that Francis is being more open and conscientiously opening discussion on things that have been set in stone for so long is a step in the right direction.

larry and dougDoug McDermott’s Sports Illustrated cover, which is a remake of an old Larry Bird Sports Illustrated cover, is really well done: even the title of the article is the same. It’s interesting that they showed Doug’s feet (they didn’t show Larry’s) and had him cover the magazine name, which makes him look an awful lot taller. It’s also interesting how much uniform shapes have changed (I like the old look better, but I think that’s just me).

The article about Pastor Mike, who attended both Creighton’s Senior Night (in which McDermott exploded and hit the 3000 career points mark) as well as Nebraska’s defeat of Wisconsin (all but clinching an NCAA spot for the first time in 16 years) was excellent. Full of biblical jokes and things, but chilling, in a way: really, that was a heck of a weekend for basketball, and for the state in general. These things don’t happen every year.

The GOP is as per usual staunchly defending their views on abortion, and are apparently planning to make social issues in general a more major part of the platform come the 2016 race. I think it’s a bunch of hooey, and I think the GOP will keep losing support and interest (and power) if they keep on like this.

Obama and the Ukrainian Prime Minister met. Basically everyone but Russia wants Russia out of Crimea. I won’t lie and say that the situation doesn’t worry me a bit, because it does! I’m not old enough to remember when Russia was legitimately scary and this is a step in that direction, despite the hugely changed world. I hope that this works out as cleanly as possible. I’m glad I’m not in politics.

All the Nebraska DMVs are going to shut down for four days in April so their employees can be trained on new licensing rules. I don’t know if this has happened recently but anyone with a cool 16th birthday in April who wants their permit is going to have to wait!

Jackie Gaughan passed away. I’ll be perfectly honest, I didn’t know very much about the man before this article. His name is on the Multicultural Center attached to the UNL Union, and I’ve only ever been there for quiz bowls and occasional soap carving meetings, nothing cultural or multicultural at all. Apparently his grandson donated some large sum of money to have his name put on it when it was built, it wasn’t strictly an honorary thing (which I had always figured). Still, interesting to read.

The SAT is getting even easier. Whether this is to compete with the ACT or just to be less imposing, the changes still read as the continuance of “everybody’s a winner, everyone does well, everyone can go to college and be super successful.” I’m not a test maker but yeesh.

Erin Grace still has a weird smile.

People think there aren’t enough women protagonists in movies. They might be right. People think that male-led movies make more money. They’re generally wrong, it’s dependent on budget alone apparently. So why the disconnect? All I can offer is a shrug and an “Iunno” and a “that’s how it’s been and change is hard.”

Europe wants to stop United States from using names like “Parmesan” and “feta” and “Gorgonzola” to describe their cheeses. Parmesan cheese is supposed to come from Parma, Italy. Feta is from Greece (just because it always has been). Other cheeses, like Muenster and Asiago and Romano, as well as other terms like Greek yogurt, bologna, and prosciutto are under fire. This sounds pretty asinine. If you serve a Philly cheesesteak in Germany, you deserve to call it a Philly because that’s what it is.

That’s all for today!

The Lego Movie might be the best “children’s movie” ever

This is a bold statement to make. I know it. Indulge me for a bit.

The Lego Movie would be a good movie even without any of the Lego bricks involved. The dialog is straightforward and witty and well-done, even for children. It’s fast-paced but not a race. The wide cast of characters, including Batman and Dumbledore and Superman and Shaquille O’Neal, all bring their own flair to the movie that (importantly) isn’t ever over-the-top. Even Batman, who builds a character around liking the color black and being super-cool, isn’t 100% predictable and is funny throughout the movie.

But this is a movie about Legos, and takes fantastic advantage of it. Some spoilers follow. Please go see the movie first.spaceyness

The visual puns are everywhere. There are parodies and “ripoffs” of plenty of real-life things in Lego form. The construction workers build skyscrapers by following Lego instruction manuals. The main bad guy, President Business, collects objects “from another world” which are all real-life, non-Lego objects like a paper clip, an exacto knife, and others, including the main object of the evil plot, the Kragle (which is sheer brilliance).

Some parts of the story, particularly those being told as stories in-the-movie, have an even simpler style than the rest of the movie. Where most of the models are certainly possible with actual Lego bricks but complicated and thought-out and well-designed, the stories are animated with simple, square bricks only, which add to the feeling of “little-kids” while still communicating story very well. These parts are also narrated with silly little-kid sound effects, like the pirate ship that pbbbbbbs around like a motorbike, and it’s hilarious and lends a great touch.

The concept of “the man upstairs” is introduced early on as a God metaphor, but eventually develops into something far more sinister, as the dual personality of President Business and the real-life child’s no-nonsense father (Will Ferrell) comes into play towards the end. It’s not even a twist, really, but a natural extension of what Legos should be all about: playing and creating.

In fact the concept of a Lego Masterbuilder is one of the main points of the movie. Masterbuilders can rebuild the world around them, possessing the creativity to manipulate bricks into whatever they like. When the main character, Emmett, meets a Masterbuilder, she escapes with him by building a giant rocket motorcycle out of an alleyway (that eventually transforms so that it can fly away from the police). When Masterbuilders start to visualize the pieces around them and what they can make, they identify pieces individually with numbers, which I can only assume are the actual catalog pieces numbers of the various Lego bricks (again, a great, subtle touch).

edit: I forgot to mention the ending again, which is something I’d vaguely thought about beforehand and was not disappointed in. They thought of everything.

The movie is all about creativity, and possibility, and transmits the sheer wonder and amazement any kid playing with Legos can find. The Lego Movie was exactly everything that I could hope for from something trying to embody my childhood, and it was that and much much more.

Oh, and if you’re still not convinced, it features the voices of Will Ferrell (who I don’t mind as a villain), Charlie Day (who is great as a hyperexcited 1980’s spaceman), Liam Neeson (whose good cop/bad cop face-switching is hilarious, grounded in actual Lego pieces, and integral to the first half of the story), Morgan Freeman (fantastic as always), Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill (as superheroes), Anthony Daniels and Billy Dee Williams (as C-3PO and Lando!), and of course Shaquille O’Neal as himself.

If you cheated and read this without watching the movie, firstly you’re an idiot, secondly go watch it right this minute, thirdly once you’ve done that I dare you to tell me I’m wrong. Movie of the year. No doubt.

NEW VIDEO GAMES

What a week, what a past few weeks for video games.

audiosurf 2Audiosurf 2. Sequel to the best “plug your music files in, play” game out there, Audiosurf 2 expands on the original in just about every way possible. While this game is still in early access, it’s well worth the time and money. The new Wakeboard modes let you perform incredible airborne stunts during dramatic parts of your music, some of the modes from the original Audiosurf are available for play (with more coming soon), and enormous support for Steam Workshop, including new skins and game modes, some of which essentially only use the fact that Audiosurf recognizes music to drive vaguely-related gameplay. The developer is very active on the official Audiosurf forums and has been putting out a skin or mod every week for some time, all of which are fun and well-put-together. Definitely worth a look.

spelunkySpelunky. The Steam edition of the original, Game Maker game (also released on XBL), Spelunky is a ruthless platformer with permadeath, where the only sense of game progression is the meager shortcuts you can unlock between worlds. You choose a skin and dive into the caves, armed with a few bombs and ropes to get you out of any tight spot. You only get more health by carrying distressed damsels (or pugs) to the exit, guarded by monsters and traps of all kinds. Each level is short, less than three minutes, but racking up consecutive rounds (particularly “oh, just one more try” moments) is too easy to do. The controls are airtight and every unfortunate death feels like your own fault, sometimes a challenge for randomly generated games. Oh, and did I mention co-op? I’m pretty sure I mentioned co-op, which is as hilarious as it is rewarding.

don't starveDon’t Starve. A take on a survival game, you take on the character of Wilson, a Gentleman Scientist stranded on an island, with only his wits and his handiness to keep him alive. Wilson’s only method of communication is the sound of a violin, subtitled for your convenience. To stay alive, Wilson must constantly be looking for food to keep his stomach full (and his hit points up), as well as flowers to keep his sanity in check. The progression of your items is very clearly defined,  you always know what you might want to be crafting next, and Wilson can use just about anything he finds to help him, whether it be tall grass made into a bed roll or stone and tree logs for a pickaxe. The game has a wonderfully well-crafted hand-drawn style, and everything is explained just well enough to make you feel confident but never explained such that you don’t need to do any experimenting. The Steam Workshop is all over this title, too.

desktop dungeonsDesktop Dungeons. This game was originally a Game Maker game, too, long long ago, though it’s been purely a web-based game for quite some time. Just recently, with a large amount of content, UI, and other polish updates, the announcement was made about the move to Steam. This is a dungeon crawler with a sense of progression — each dungeon you clear nets you gold, which can unlock other quests as well as make limited advantages available for further dungeon runs. The dungeons are one screen each, and are designed to be played in ten minutes each, so you can drop in and drop out as necessary. With a huge amount of content in the form of classes, races, a ludicrously difficult puzzle mode, and the variety of the different monsters and traps, this game can last a man years.

pinball arcadePinball Arcade. A free-to-play game recently released on Steam, this brings loads of classic pinball games into your computer for your enjoyment. The same company making this game made two different pinball collections for the PS2, which were both a lot of fun to play, and the PC version comes with even more polish and content. The free version only comes with one table, but you can try any other tables for free or buy them individually or in packs.

the forgottenAge of Empires II: The Forgotten. A fanmade expansion for the original Age of Empires II, updated for the HD re-release on Steam and made official, introduces most significantly five new “forgotten” empires to the game: the Italians, Incas, Slavs, Indians, and Magyars (each with completely new units and technologies), as well as four new campaigns, new multiplayer modes, and various other tweaks to AI and gameplay. It also adds built-in support for spectating matches and streaming through twitch.tv, ever-helpful. This game is, in my not-very-well-versed opinion, one of the best and most fun RTS games of all time, and this update only makes it better.

assault android cactusAssault Android Cactus. I had almost not included this one, but I played the five-level demo just this morning and it is fantastic. It’s a twin-stick shooter, a genre I have very high expectations for, and it plays wonderfully. In the demo, you can choose from four different androids, each with a different primary and special weapon, and gameplay includes lots of enemies, alternate challenges in dark levels and boss battles, special powerups, and lots of fun. Single-player and local-co-op are included, always great for twin-sticks. This game, like Audiosurf 2, is in Early Access on Steam, so you can “beta-test” the game right now. I haven’t actually bought this one yet, but it’s on the top of my wish list.

Games cost money. But these games are worth it.

Moulin Rouge vs. The Great Gatsby, in musical terms

moulin rougeAbout a week ago (or so), Cassie and I watched Moulin Rouge, a strange, incredibly unique stage-like story, entirely full of covers of popular songs from the 70s, 80s, 90s. It had a lot of heart and was entertaining above all else.

Today, on a bus ride back from Minneapolis (where I went this weekend, which was fun except for the Husker game!), The Great Gatsby, the new one, was playing. Which was… interesting.

In the first five minutes of Gatsby, we’re transported inside one of the wild parties, which you would expect to have some vaguely familiar music playing in the background! Jazz, big band, swing, anything remotely 1900-1940s would have been appropriate for a roaring twenties movie.

Nope. The first song is Jay-Z. Jay-Z.

In fact, the entire movie soundtrack (or at least everything I remember) is modern rap and hip-hop songs. Which is really really jarring. This is where the comparison comes in. Where Moulin Rouge is so overly surreal, every song they sing feels like a stage performer winking at the audience. Where Gatsby is so completely a “stereotypical” early-1900s movie, the completely blatant modern music kills the mood and prevents the movie itself from being a classic in any sense.

I always liked The Great Gatsby, the book. Or at least, I liked the story, until I had to analyze it to death in my English class. After that I fell out of touch with it, but here I am some years later, and I was willing to listen again. I like the story. It’s interesting and wild and coincidental and fun.

gatsby character mapAnd truth be told, the rest of the movie does well. Tobey Maguire, who is kind of a dork, is the main character, who is…kind of a dork. Leonardo DiCaprio, who is a good actor and a good portrayer of semi-villains, is Gatsby, who is both of those things. The fact that Leonardo delivers a more convincing performance than Tobey is itself reflective of the two characters in the movie. Which I really liked. (This is similar to John Travolta’s performance in Pulp Fiction, where the actor himself brings power to a role.)

Bottom line, Gatsby has exactly one surprise, and it ruins quite a bit, but everything around that isn’t a bad show. Also Moulin Rouge is a menagerie of art, and worth a watching.

[an edit: something that was brought up later was that if Gatsby wanted to use modern music, it really ought to have gone whole hog and just been a modern remake, akin to Romeo + Juliet (which was a very weird movie). It wasn’t until I was looking up more information about these three films that I realized, of course they made me think of each other: they’re all directed by Baz Luhrmann. What an interesting guy.]

I watch movies and sometimes notice things.

pacific rim jawsIn the last week or so I’ve seen a few movies and they’ve all got me really thinking about the people and things contained in them, so I’d like to talk about them for a bit.

I saw Pacific Rim in theaters with a special someone and we both agreed that, while enjoyable, it wasn’t a great movie. It was fun to watch, especially if you turn your mind off for a while.

The main character is a doofus and has awful dialog. Okay, sure. The only female in the movie (sorry, Bechdel Test) is troubled but pretty and also a little kick-ass, which is nifty. One of the scientists behind the “decipher the alien brain” project is Charlie Day of It’s Always Sunny in Philadephia and Horrible Bosses fame, who I really really like as an actor, and definitely adds to the movie in that he takes away from the serious dialog silliness. The robotic voice of the Jaegers is Ellen McLain, known mostly as GLaDOS from the Portal series (and the announcer in Team Fortress 2, incidentally), whose voice filter was actually licensed from Valve (though toned down) for the movie. What a cool little thing.

There is a part in the movie where the crew is held up by a man on a motorized cart, who only stops and glares at the main characters before continuing. He doesn’t appear anywhere else, but his face is shown clearly. After a little surfing, I think it has to be the producer, Thomas Tull, though I may be way off base, as I don’t remember the scene very well. Cameos are cool.

Just today we also had some time to spend and spent it watching WarGames, a “thriller” starring a very young Matthew Broderick as the accidental initiator of an almost-nuclear war. It’s this movie that coined the “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play” line.

Originally I was arguing, having never seen it before, that the Matthew Broderick of this movie grows up and changes his name to Ferris Bueller (which we’d watched together a week ago). There are so many similarities: he has a computer, his room is upstairs, his parents are goofballs, he is a slacker in school, there is a goofy love interest, etc. etc.

But once he gets kidnapped for suspected Soviet espionage, that changes everything. The movie is very enjoyable, if a little goofy at times (but not in a bad way). Really, it’s funny how after watching Dr. Strangelove (again a week ago) how much the War Room has changed in 30 years, yet the plot is still the same: “nuclear combat toe-to-toe with the Russkies.”

wargames the bookOh, and the slightly foppish assistant in WarGames with the receding hairline and the thin mustache? An actor named Michael Ensign. I recognized him for his part as the hotel manager/owner in Ghostbusters, but turns out he was in Titanic and was the voice of Dr. N. Tropy in a good chunk of the Crash Bandicoot games (which I would have never picked up on).

[An aside: it’s funny that the only game he didn’t play N. Tropy in is the one I played the most of, Wrath of Cortex, which might be why I never noticed. Wrath of Cortex had a shitload of other celebrity voices, though, including Clancy Brown (voice of Mr. Krabs among many other roles), Debi Derryberry (voice of Jimmy Neutron, among others), R. Lee Ermey (of Full Metal Jacket), Mark Hamill (… Luke Skywalker), Jess Harnell (a super prolific voice actor, including Wakko from Animaniacs), and Tom Wilson (Biff from Back To The Future). What a hell of a cast for an ultimately moderately bland, “safe” game.]

Anyway. I digress. A lot. Basically, I have been watching more movies lately, I have liked most of them, and the more I watch movies the more I appreciate the people that go into them. The End.

[epilogue: while surfing through WarGames links I found this website, dedicated to guessing the DEFCON level of the United States military. The site’s been running for 30 years, so Netscape users beware.

epilogue two: while surfing through Pacific Rim websites I found this gem buried in the comment section. What was a discussion on proper dictation turned into a sports chant. (Also, go Tigers.) ]