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Signal to Noise

Friday, April 29, 2011
I'm fairly certain there's a hidden circuit in all smoke detectors that will only have the battery go out in the middle of the night. Anecdotal evidence - the best evidence,http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif of course - has shown that, 100% of the time, smoke detector will only start beeping because of a low battery between the hours of 1 AM and 5 AM.

My issues with smoke detectors is the signal-to-noise ratio; i.e. the number of times it goes off or starts making noise when there's no actual fire versus the number of times it goes off or starts making noise when there is a fire.

I bring this up, of course, because I recently had a smoke detector start beeping in my bedroom at 5:00 AM. Due to its design, it started emitting an 85 dB beep every minute due to a low battery alert. There's no way to acknowledge the alert, either. I had to find something to stand on, remove the alarm from the wall, unplug it from the A/C power and communications interconnect, pry open the battery case, remove the dying battery, then discharge the alarm capacitors to get it to stop making noise.

Not doing anybody any good...

And herein lies my largest objection to modern smoke detectors. First off, it was on A/C power, so the battery should barely be used unless there's a power outage. Secondly, the status light was still green on detector, meaning there was no visible indication that anything was wrong. Finally, and - in terms of good design - it takes me a while to get past that first and second points, it should have a way of acknowledging that the battery's low and that it doesn't need to be changed immediately; it can wait 24 hours. Really, that's all I'm asking. I mean, let's look at some numbers:
Number of times, in the past year, my smoke detectors have gone off because of cooking: 15
Number of times, in the past year, I've had to get up in the middle of the night and change a smoke detector battery: 2
Number of times the smoke detectors have actually detected unwanted smoke: 0
Now, of course, that last number is a little misleading. Ideally we want it to be zero, because I've had 0 fires in my house. Still, we want the other numbers to be as low as possible and they're not. The noise level is pretty high; there's got to be a better way.

I don't have an answer to this problem yet, but I assure you, I'm working on it.

Game Review: Portal 2

Wednesday, April 20, 2011
It was just over three years ago (was it really that long?) that I reviewed Valve Software's the Orange Box, the world's introduction to the surprisingly revolutionary game Portal. The concept of Portal was frighteningly simple: navigate a series of obstacles using a gun that could open a portal between two spots. You didn't have a choice of different weapon types, you couldn't peek around corners, you simply had this gun, physics, and a pair of spring-loaded boots that prevented you from taking falling damage. Oh, and there was a homicidal AI controlling the whole thing. That's probably not a huge spoiler right there. Finally, the song "Still Alive" at the end of the game took the whole package from great to absolutely fantastic.''

With that background firmly established, it was over a year ago, in March 2010, that Valve Software announced a sequel to the game: Portal 2. The ending of Portal was retroactively changed so that your escape was much more temporary than you were led to initially believe, inasmuch as you're immediately dragged back into the facility. A little more is explained in the awesome comic "Lab Rat".

Portal 2 logo

So, on to Portal 2. I'm going to try to do this with as few spoilers as possible, having just completed the single player portion of the game and looking forward to mainlining the new cooperative mode.

First off, GLaDOS is back and, honestly, she's a little pissed. Whereas her personality was that of a glitchy, mildly homicidal AI through most of the first Portal, in Portal 2 she's mainly got the less-glitchy, more-homicidal AI we saw come out in the last battle in the first game. She's very mission-focused, really, and that mission starts with "testing you to death".


As we progress, we learn so much more about how and where GLaDOS came from, we learn more about the history of Aperture Science and its founder, Cave Johnson, and we find out more about the Portal world than I thought was possible. Through all of this, the humor is bitingly sharp and the gameplay continues to take on new dimensions as new elements are added. Instead of just two portals, we get to add "gels" which coat a surface and modify its properties, or "light walls", which are solid walls made of light and can be redirected through portals. The elements complicate the game in a welcome, wonderful way.

But in the end, it's the story and the voice acting that take Portal 2 from "fun" to "amazing". While the gameplay is like the first Portal, with a few extra complicating tools thrown in, I progressed through the game because I my character wanted to escape - and I wanted to find out what was going to happen next. The quality of those elements was never less that brilliant, and, for a game where the most violent experience is either being shot at by the occasional sentry turret (they're otherwise very friendly) or redirecting a few explosive boxes in a more helpful direction, a new bar has been set for the first-person shooter genre.

Verdict: Please buy it, so that Valve might continue its tradition of releasing fantastic games.

Fare thee well, Camino

Thursday, April 14, 2011
Last November I wrote a post called "Competition" about competition in the web browser space and how those of us who care about those sorts of things are enjoying a golden age as the results of that competition reach us. However, in every competition, there are winners and losers. Sometimes you're not cheering for the best competitor but for the one you can connect with. In this case, my favorite was always Camino, and the competition has, unfortunately, not been kind to them.

Camino logo from Wikipedia

Camino is a browser that's built on some of the same foundational components that underpin Firefox. Camino takes those components and wraps a pleasant, well-built, Mac OS X-native shell around them and the result is a fast, stable, Mac-friendly browser. People who use it LOVE it.

Unfortunately, Camino was a lot of work for the developers, all of whom were volunteers, and the work it took to make the browser work grew faster than the development team. Then, the news hit: those Firefox parts that were used weren't going to be supported any more. To use a car analogy, it's as if the Lotus team were told by Toyota that they wouldn't be able to get engines for the Elise any more.

While there's talk of using the underpinnings from Safari, Apple's own browser, it's still just an idea that's being bandied about. My preference will likely shift to using Google Chrome as I like the JavaScript performance; as browsers go I see it as the top performer. Still, Camino was a favorite and it'll be missed as time marches on.

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