Friday, January 30, 2009

Lie To Me

As I wrote on Thursday, I recently watched the first two episodes of the new TV show Lie To Me. I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed the show. Among other things, it appealed to my geeky nature :)

The premise of Lie To Me is a group of human lie-detectors take on various clients who are in search of the truth. They go far beyond just determining truth verses lie though. As stated in the first episode, "The question is not 'Is someone lying?', it's 'Why?'." Thus the House-esque Cal Lightman (Tim Roth) and his partner Gillian Foster (Kelli Williams) go about investigating the people and situations surrounding the case, as well as interviewing the suspected liar.

Two features of the show particularly tickle my geeky fancy. The first is that they explain the science of lie detection to us as they are using that science, and they manage to do so in a graceful way. In the first episode they hire a "natural", a person who can detect lies by instinct. Ria Torres (Monica Raymund) has no training in the science of lie detection. She just knows when people are lying. As the experts work they explain their scientific take on lie detection to Ria, and hence to us.

The second thing is one which will some day date this show, but is highly amusing at the moment. They frequently show pictures of the suspects showing some emotion: scorn, deception, fear, etc. They will also show the same expression on pictures of celebrities and politicians. It's highly amusing to see pictures of people like Bill Clinton and Simon Cowell with those emotions reflected so clearly on their faces.

It will be interesting to see how Lie To Me develops as a show. I think they are off to a great start :)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Why I love the Internet, Reason 472

Last night I watched the second episode of Lie To Me. I wanted to see the first episode, however I forgot to Tivo it. After enjoying the second episode I did a little googling and found that the pilot is available on hulu! So I got to watch it after all :)

On Friday I'll be back with my geeky impressions of the show!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

10 Favorite Hidden Object Games

One of my guilty pastimes is playing hidden object games. Hidden object games are a lot like Where's Waldo books. The goal is to find a list of objects, hidden in a complicated picture.

I get most of my hidden object games from Big Fish Games. I've downloaded casual games from a number of different places. Big Fish is the one I turn to the most. They roll out a new game every day. Some are great, some are duds, but either way their game library grows fast. You get a 1-hour free trial for most games (all but the games with large downloads). I think the trials are the best way to find out if I like a game like this or not. Sure I could read reviews, but when it's something I'm going to finish in 10-20 hours, it's not worth it. Big Fish also has very reasonable prices if you're willing to join one of their game clubs. The game clubs involve a purchase commitment (3, 6, or 12 games, one per month), but I've found mine to be worth it.

10 of My Favorite Hidden Object Games
Mystery P.I. - The Lottery Ticket is my favorite traditional hidden object game. This one has great pictures to search through, with tons of hidden items. It has a medium level of difficulty. It has a few side games, which are all pretty straightforward. Play this one for the hidden object part, not the rest. While solving the mystery you get to unlock the unlimited seek and find mode where you get to find all of the objects in each of the pictures. I've played through this one many times. I also had a lot of fun with the second game in the series, The Vegas Heist. I have not yet played the newest Mystery P.I. game, The New York Fortune. I hope it lives up to its predecessors!

Mystery Case Files: Madam Fate, Ravenhearst, and Return to Ravenhearst are a more challenging breed of hidden object games. These involve a variety of puzzles in addition to the hidden object elements. I found the puzzles varied in difficulty, in part due to my familiarity (or lack there of) with many of them. They all have great hidden object pictures as well. Return to Ravenhearst is the newest, and most challenging, of the three.

The Hidden Expedition series of hidden object games is something in between the Mystery P.I. series and the Mystery Case Files series. I've played Hidden Expedition: Amazon and Hidden Expedition: Everest. These do have a variety of puzzles in addition to the hidden object elements, but not as many as the Mystery Case Files games. I would consider these to be a good bridge between the two, for someone trying to transition to more difficult puzzle games.

Occasionally a hidden object game manages to surprise me. Magic Academy falls into that category. Most hidden object games have some sort of separation between the hidden object part and any additional puzzles. This game integrates the two. I really enjoyed this change. I hope they make a sequel soon :)

Yard Sale Hidden Treasures: Sunnyville was fun, if short. The premise of Hidden Treasures is that you are trying to decorate a house with items found a yard sales. Many of the items need to be refurbished, which is done in several simple mini games. I blew through this one in a few days, I liked it enough to play a sequel though if another is released.

Lastly, The Hidden Object Show is a fun, lighthearted hidden object game. This one is wrapped around a game show theme. Solving hidden object puzzles wins the player points in the game show. You pretty much lose out on story lines here, but the hidden object games are still fun.

Magnifying glass not included :)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Lunch Works: The Shrimp Secret plus Quick Recipes

I am about to reveal one of my biggest lunch secrets: how it is that I bring shrimp to work so frequently. The answer lies frozen... frozen in big bags of peeled, ready to cook shrimp! :)

One of my freezer staples is frozen shrimp. I usually get it from Sam's Club, but I've also seen them at Costco. I buy the uncooked variety, but you can also get already cooked shrimp if you prefer. To prepare the frozen shrimp, take out as many as you want to cook and put them in a bowl. Cover with cold water and let the shrimp rest until thawed. This takes about 15 minutes or so. After they are thawed, I rinse with more cold water, and pull the tails off. You can cook shrimp with the tails on, but I prefer to remove them before cooking.

The secret to working with peeled shrimp is do not boil it! Shrimp just doesn't retain a lot of flavor when it is boiled out of its shell. Methods such as sauteing and stir frying produce a much better flavor in peeled shrimp. Or you can cook them in a sauce, where the sauce provides some of the flavor.

Some of my favorite quick shrimp recipes:
Saute shrimp with marinated artichokes (the kind in olive oil). When the shrimp are cooked, stir in some cooked pasta. Great by itself or topped with Parmesan cheese.

Saute shrimp, add vodka sauce (creamy tomato sauce), stir in cooked pasta. When tomatoes are in season, I saute a chopped tomato with the shrimp. This is the closest I can get to a pasta dish I used to get from one of my favorite restaurants in New Orleans.

Stir fry whatever veggies you have available, add shrimp when the veg is mostly cooked (shrimp cook faster than vegetables), season with soy sauce.

Saute shrimp and serve with cheesie rice. Cheesie rice = cooked rice mixed with Rotel(tm) dip.

Saute shrimp and use as a baked potato topping. Great with cheese!

Use shrimp as an omelet filling.

So now everyone knows my secret, and how easy some of my recipes are! If you have any shrimp recipes to share, quick or other wise, feel free to post them in the comments :)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Making Wii Music

Anyone who is a fan of the Wii has probably heard of Wii Music. It was one of Nintendo's showpieces at the 2008 E3. Previews and reviews were mixed, yet Wii Music got a lot of press. I very much enjoy other music video games, and I was excited to get to try this one.

Wii Music Overview
Wii Music has three modes, jam mode, lessons, and minigames. Lessons is a great place to start as it illustrates use of the wiimote, nunchuck, and optionally the balance board, to play various instruments. Wii Music definitely takes advantage of the flexibility of the controllers. Playing instruments often involves holding and moving the controllers in a way which mimics playing them in real life. Once you've mastered an instrument or two, it's time for a jam session. During a jam session, you perform one of the songs in the game, or do improvisations. Jams can have up to 4 players in each 6 person band. You get the option to add additional tracks by overdubbing. One person could play all of the 6 parts in a final recording, the parts would just need to be dubbed one at a time.

The minigames section has three games. In Mii Maestro you are now the conductor of the orchestra, and must keep it in time. Handbell Harmony is reminiscent of Guitar Hero. Bells scroll across the screen, and players must wave their wiimotes in time with their color bell. Pitch Perfect tests the player's musical skills, requiring the player to complete a variety of listening challenges in the time allotted.

My Impression
I can't say that I am overly impressed with Wii Music. I spent most of my time while playing thinking that the authors forgot that a good video game needs to be challenging. When playing the instruments, you only need to play in time with the song. To the best that I could tell, nothing I did changed the notes that were played. This is a huge difference from games like Rock Band, where a great deal of the challenge comes from both the timing and from hitting the right notes.

Players of other music games will probably find the Wii Music song list to be limited. 52 songs sounds like a lot, until you realize that only 13 of them are pop style hits. There are however 7 songs from various video game soundtracks for us gamer geeks. I particularly like the "Super Mario Bros." theme.

I had the most fun with the minigames. I found Pitch Perfect to be the right mix of fun and challenge. The two player mode did a great job of keeping both me and my husband involved, even though it had us taking turns rather than playing simultaneously. We played through a few levels, and still have some to go. Handbell Harmony is easier than Guitar Hero, but has the same fun spirit. We burned through the 5 songs pretty quickly though. It would be nice to have all 52 available in this minigame. I doubt I would win any honors with my conducting in Mii Maestro, especially since I kept holding the orchestra on long notes. Luckily the orchestra handled my conducting much better than Bugs Bunny's victim when he got to play conductor!

Gaming is one of my geeky pass times, music creation is not. I am not interested in changing the style of songs, overdubbing, or writing my own music. Thus those features are lost on me. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then by all means check out Wii Music. People are doing some cool things with it. You can see some examples in the videos posted on You Tube. (I like this one!)

The other place I think Wii Music would be a good fit is if you had a young gamer who found the other music game offerings to be too much of a challenge. Wii Music's jam sessions have much of the same feeling as playing a song in Rock Band, without the difficulty level and without the chance of failing the song.

Sometimes a game comes out that everybody seems to love. I don't think Wii Music is a candidate for this honor. It does have it's moments though :)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Life Connected

Our net access is currently out while our cable company does maintenance. So once again I find myself blogging from my G1. It also brings to my attention exactly how much I rely on my net connection.

If I wanted to talk to my best friend right now, I would see if he's awake on Google Talk or Second Life. Sure I could call him, but it's a pretty good bet that if he's available to talk, he will be in one of those two places. I turn to email and Facebook when trying to reach the rest of my friends.

I know people still read newspapers and watch news on TV. I have not done either in a good 10 years. A big news event could break tonight and I would have no idea it happened! I typically get the weather forecast online too. I'll have to figure out where the Weather Channel is on TV sometime tonight.

It is a good thing I did not have plans to cook anything new tonight. The Internet is the world's biggest cookbook, and the first place I look for new recipes. I use the web as my phone book, my dictionary, and my encyclopedia, for movie schedules, and to find out when the Penguins are playing.

I am sure I will survive my little hiatus from the information superhighway, so long as it's brief... and so long as I have my G1 to fill in the blanks!

(Edited to add all of the links.)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Bento Gear!

A few weeks before Christmas I donated $20 to Menu for Hope 5. Menu for Hope is a fund raising campaign that's promoted and run by bloggers, in particular, food bloggers. A bunch of bloggers get together and offer prizes related to their blogs. Anyone who donates money gets raffle tickets for the prizes, $10 donation per ticket. Upon donating we also get the chance to choose which drawing our tickets go in.

This is the type of fund raising drive that I am happy to donate money to. The whole thing is conducted online. No one is sending dead tree mail, or even solicitation emails. Word travels across hundreds of blogs. In other words, it is quite a geeky campaign. Blogs who want to participate are invited to donate a prize, and prize list is totally awesome. Yet my first thought was this was a worthwhile cause for my $20. If I win, that's pretty cool. Either way, they get a little further ahead.

I was very excited to find out that I did win a prize! :) This set of bento gear from the blog Lunch in a Box. I have never had real bento boxes before. All of mine are boring plastic containers, not cute pink and red ones! And I may have to take pancakes to work one day, just so I can show off the Hello Kitty pancake ring. The cuteness factor of my lunches just went up by a good 200% :)

Friday, January 16, 2009

My Fitness Coach, or is it?

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about trading in my copy of Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum 2009. When I traded it in, I picked up a copy of My Fitness Coach, also for the Wii. The funny thing about this game is that it is actually a port of a game which came out for the XBox in 2004, called Yourself!Fitness. I used Yourself!Fitness (YF) quite a lot on the XBox. It was a pretty good program. Notice I just switched from the term "game" to "program". That's because it's not really a game at all. It's more like a dynamic exercise video.

My Fitness Coach starts by having the user do a fitness test and set up goals, including scheduling workout days. The program uses the results of the fitness test to configure the workouts. A less fit user will get easier workouts. A more fit user will get harder workouts. Workouts may be either 15, 30, 45, or 60 minutes in length. The workouts begin with an aerobics section and follow with strength training, and stretching. The duration of each section is determined by the type of workout chosen. If the user has a step bench, hand weights, exercise ball, and/or heart monitor, those things can be incorporated into the workout.

I've always thought this was a pretty good program. It beats doing exercise videos, since the order and content of the exercises changes from workout to workout, it's impossible to memorize what comes next. You also have a lot more control over the intensity. The level of difficulty can be adjusted at any time during a workout. The program tells you how many workouts you've completed, and awards new backgrounds and music options with regular use.

UBISOFT missed a big opportunity to do a true YF upgrade, rather than just doing a port. At the time the original was popular, the YF message boards were quite active with ideas and suggestions for the program. The YF developers stated that they were having some difficulties, but that a sequel was in the works. Well, My Fitness Coach isn't it. They kept the same graphics, sound, and most of the dialogue. The exercises are the same. It's basically the same program, minus the meal planning part of YF. (Which I never used, so that is no loss to me.) That means My Fitness Coach in no way takes advantage of the Wii and its capabilities. The controller is used to navigate through the menus, then sits on the table the rest of the time.

I think they could have made a few simple changes that would have greatly improved the program. First off, I don't see why the workouts need to be in increments of 15 minutes. I think they should change that to increments of 5 minutes, or even 1 minute. Second, when the coach needs a piece of equipment, it just appears. I personally can not teleport my hand weights from the floor to my hands. I would like a pause of 5-10 seconds to pick them up. Third, I would like the option to have a tutorial automatically appear every time an exercise is brand new. I know the tutorials are there, but since I have to pick up the Wiimote to access them (the Wiimote which is not used for much of anything and has been moved out of the way and has turned itself off), I almost never bother to actually view them. Instead I muddle along the best that I can. If they're not going to use the Wiimote as a regular part of the workout, then I shouldn't have to pick it up at all.

In short, I always thought YF had the makings of a good program, but wasn't quite there yet. My Fitness Coach feels the same way.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Snow Where?

The past 48 hours have been exciting ones for Long Live Geeks. Lifehacker was nice enough to link to my Best Buy post, and since then we've gotten far more hits in the past two days than in the history of Long Live Geeks so far! :) Sallying on...

I grew up in the southern part of the US. When I was a kid and it snowed, it was a cause for celebration. Schools closed. We had snowball fights. Once we even managed to build a 3 foot tall snowman! Fast forward several years and I now live in south west PA. I was dismayed to learn that here the proper response to snow is something other than having snow ball fights and waiting inside (with hot cocoa!) for the snow to melt. In fact, they not only clear the streets as fast as possible, but expect us to do the same with our sidewalks! They want us to remove the snow?!? It's most peculiar. I got with the program though and became acquainted with tools such as rock salt and snow shovels. I'm far from being an expert on the subject, but I get by.

As I was utilizing the aforementioned snow shovel this afternoon, I was thinking that there must be a better way to do this... or at least a geekier way! :) My first thought was of Star Trek's phasers. They used them to heat rocks in a number of episodes. Melting snow should be nothing. Unfortunately I do not have a phaser handy. The closest thing I think I could get my hands on would be a heat gun, but they're not much more than exuberant hair dryers. Melting snow with that would take forever. (Not to mention needing an a long extension cord!) So I did a bit of searching for other geeky snow removal tools which are actually available in this star date.

The first thing I came across is the Wovel. A Wovel is a shovel, attached to a large wheel. The center of the wheel acts as the pivot point for the shovel. This makes it easy to flip the snow out of the shovel. Or so they say. The wheel also means that lifting is not required, the wheel holds the Wovel up. The Wovel is allegedly the world's safest shovel. This is where they lose me. If person A were to hit person B over the head with a shovel, then person A hit person C over the head with a Wovel, do we really think person C would come out ahead? It looks a bit heavier than the average snow shovel. If person A got a good amount of strength into it, I'd hazard to guess that person C would actually take more damage! So clearly the Wovel cannot possibly be any safer than an ordinary shovel.

Moving on, I found the SnowPusherLite. The SnowPusherLite has a round blade on the end of a long stick. Rather than lifting the snow, this one just pushes it out of the way. This one claims to be designed in response to recent climate changes, which result in lighter snow. So now that we have lighter snow, which would make it easier to lift, we should forgo lifting and push the snow out of the way. Hmm, something about their logic isn't grabbing me. I also have to wonder if the CamelCase naming system really works outside of programming languages.

It does not look like we will be adding the Wovel or the SnowPusherLite to our snow removal arsenal. Now the Icenator might have promise. This one's an alternative to throwing down rock salt. It's a liquid ice melter which is sprayed onto ice and snow. It's also said to melt ice at low temperatures, as low as -85f. The only problem is, I'd be afraid the Icenator is really a cyborg ice melter come back from the future to melt the special ice which will one day save the world! I couldn't have something like that in my house!

While I didn't find any snow removal tools that I can't live without, I did have a lot of fun debating the efficacy of several. Isn't it fun being a geek? :)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Getting the Best of Best Buy

Friday night my husband and I were browsing in Barnes and Noble after dinner. While in the DVD section I picked up season 4 of Stargate Atlantis and scanned it with the Shop Savvy program on my G1. Shop Savvy is a nifty app that will scan the barcode of a product and search for it, returning a list of locations and prices. It returns both online prices and those in-store. Shop Savvy told me that the DVDs were on sale at Best Buy, for $19.99.

At the time I had been pondering how I could see the rest of the Stargate Atlantis (SGA) series. I watched much of it during a Sci-Fi Channel marathon last week. They didn't show every episode though, and in particularly they skipped season 4. Having the series on sale at Best Buy was especially fortuitous as we had accumulated $40 in Reward Zone certificates during our Christmas shopping. (I was very surprised to get the email stating we had $40 in certificates. They came from a bunch of bonus points we got from buying video games during the holiday preview event.) My husband graciously said I could spend the certificates. If all four seasons of SGA were on sale for about $20 each, that would mean I'd only have to spend $40 plus tax out of my own pocket.

I checked when we got home and sure enough the first four seasons were on sale. (SGA went for 5 seasons total, but the 5th one is not out on DVD yet.) They were not available at our local Best Buy, but they were in stock at one about 40 minutes away. So on Saturday afternoon we set out to do some shopping.

Those of you who are familiar with Best Buy's pricing policies, may see where this is going. We get to Best Buy and find that the DVDs were not actually on sale in the store... only online. We had someone scan them for us, and in store they came up as $44.99 per season - more than double the online sale price. I suppose we could've raised a fuss, asked to speak to a manager, etc. Instead we proceeded to complete this cool shopping hack :)

I got on my G1's web browser and looked up SGA season 1 at Best Buy's website. It was still priced $19.99. I added it to my cart, choosing the in-store pickup option. The store I chose to pick the DVDs up at - the one we were standing in! I then did the same thing with seasons 2, 3, and 4. I completed the online checkout, using my Reward Zone certificates to pay for half of the purchase and a credit card to pay for the rest. All of that took me about 10 minutes to complete on my phone. It was 10 minutes well spent.

I then used my G1 to check my email. Immediately I received the email saying my order had been received. Best Buy's in store pickup system involves two emails - the order received email and a second one confirming that the purchase is ready to be picked up. We spent some time browsing and 10 minutes later I had the second email. When we got to the in-store pickup line they didn't actually have the order pulled yet, so we did have to wait a few minutes while someone went and got the DVDs. (I resisted the urge to offer to go get them myself :) ) A few minutes later we walked out with all 4 seasons of SGA, having paid about $43 - that's less than 1 season would have cost had we picked it up on the shelf and gone to the checkout line!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Palm Rides Again... We Hope

At this year's CES (Consumer Electronic Show) Palm unveiled their new operating system, known as WebOS. The first WebOS phone was also part of the demonstration, a sweet touchscreen smartphone which is supposed to be available from Sprint in the first half of 2009. The phone is known as the Pre. I really hope Palm is able to resume their place as a hand-held powerhouse with this new OS and its subsequent devices.

I've been a fan of Palm handhelds since their first devices were released, the Palm Pilot 1000 and Pilot 5000. At the time Palm was a subsidiary of U. S. Robotics. The Pilot 1000 and 5000 were not the first devices to be created by the Palm founders (Jeff Hawkins, Donna Dubinsky, and Ed Colligan), but it was the first device to have the Palm name. I was lucky enough to own a Pilot 5000. It had a respectable 512kb of internal memory (compared to 128kb in the 1000) and all of the functionality you would expect of a personal digital assistant (PDA) - address book, calender, etc. I was not particularly interested in that part though. I used my Pilot for games! A development community grew over the net, and it was possible to find quite a few games and apps for my Pilot.

By today's standards the Pilot was a primitive device. At the time though it was the forerunner in handhelds. Palm kept up the good work for many years, releasing a number of OS upgrades and new devices. I upgraded to a Palm III, and then later to the first color Palm, the IIIc. With the release of the Palm III, Palm dropped the Pilot moniker completely. The Pilot pen company did not appreciate Palm's naming scheme :)

On the company side, 3Com acquired U.S. Robotics in 1997. The Palm founders (Hawkins, Dubinsky, and Colligan) were not happy with 3Com's direction for Palm, and they left and formed their own company, Handspring. Palm and Handspring devices developed in competition with one another. Each had their own features, but were at heart very similar to one another.

Palm had its IPO in 2000. Palm's stock soared in those first few months. reaching a high of $95.06. The dot com bubble bursting hit Palm hard though, and a little over a year later, Palm was trading at $6.50. For some reason which still is not clear to me, Palm chose to divide their company in an effort to improve the situation. They spun off a new company, PalmSource, which managed the OS side, and their hardware division merged with Handspring and was known as PalmOne. In 2005 the two Palms undid the split, and once again became a single company.

It seems like ever since Palm went through all of the structural changes, the company has not been the same. They have had success with the Treo smartphones, but not so much to return them to their dominate status. Palm's issues came to a culminating point when they announced the Foleo device in May of 2007. Palm's triumphant comeback got laughed at by the media. It seemed that no one had any use for Palm's new mobile solution. (Given the popularity of netbooks now, it's unfortunate the Foleo didn't work out for Palm. Perhaps had they marketed it a little better, it might have worked. But I digress...) The Foleo was canceled just four months later.

The problem for a while is that Palm has been looked upon as a company which makes empty promises. Palm promised a new operating system. They promised hot new devices. The results have been underwhelming.

Early reports of the Pre are promising. Perhaps Palm has finally delivered a device to be exited about. I truly hope that is the case... even though I have no intentions of giving up my G1 anytime soon! :)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Apple Doesn't Fall Far from the Tree

If you care, then you probably know by now that Steve Jobs has reassured everyone that he is not dying from cancer. Instead he's got a hormone imbalance that apparently took his doctors half a year to find. Investors can now all feel relieved that Jobs will stay at the helm of Apple for some time to come.

I find this situation rather amusing. Not that Jobs is ill. I wouldn't want that for anybody. The amusing part is that people insist that he share his health situation with the general public. Apparently being CEO of Apple means that one's personal business is no longer personal. It's public domain information.

Jobs has been criticized for keeping his health information private. In 2003 Apple waited 9 months to disclose Jobs' pancreatic cancer. There is no official policy of when a company is required to divulge health information of their top honchos. Even so, many think that something which may have a drastic effect on a company should be public knowledge.

I sort of get where they are coming from. If you believe that it is the people at the top of the ladder, and not the system, which makes a company successful, then of course you would want to know the status of those people. Mostly though, I say it doesn't really matter. A good company should have a contingency plan in place for any situation in which the CEO is unable to continue his position. Jobs could live a long life, his cancer could come back, or he could get struck by lightening. (Okay, that one is rather unlikely, with a probability of about 0.000032%.) If Apple is not prepared to deal with any of those circumstances, then I don't want to own their stock anyways.

My favorite article about Jobs is this one, which points out that his statement about having a "hormone imbalance" is almost useless to anyone who really feels the need to understand his medical situation. He has managed to "disclose" his situation without really disclosing anything!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum 2009: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Recently I did something I almost never do - I traded in my copy of a Wii game while it was actually still worth some money. The game in question: Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum 2009. I really like Wii Fit. I was hoping that Fitness Ultimatum would be another fun exergame. Unfortunately I did not find that to be the case.

The Good
Fitness Ultimatum was not all bad. It did have some attractive features. Rather than choosing exercises one by one as in Wii Fit, this one set up workouts with a series of exercises. The workouts I did alternated between walking/running through the woods, and a variety of other activities. At the end of each walk, you could choose the left or right path. One path would say which exercise it went to. The other was a mystery.

Each exercise began with a tutorial screen that showed how to move the Wii controllers and move on the balance board to complete the exercise. It is also possible to access the exercises in the middle for a refresher on the instructions. Jillian Michaels was a constant verbal presence in the background. She was not annoying as I'd feared though. I watched a couple of seasons of The Biggest Loser. I do not believe that I would ever want to work out with Jillian in real life. In the game though, she simply made a lot of positive comments.

As I completed workouts, I unlocked a number of fitness and nutrition tips. Those I largely ignored, so I can't weigh in on the quality of their information.

The Bad
I love the balance board. Having said that, there are times when it is useful and times when it is not. During every workout I did, I spent half my time running through the woods. Since I have a balance board, the game wanted me to stand on the board and shift my weight back and forth to make my character run. You can't actually run on the board itself, hence the weight shifting. This makes much less sense than Wii Fit's approach to running - get off the balance board and run in place.

My second major problem with Fitness Ultimatum is that the verbal feedback had no relationship to what my character was doing on the screen. There was one exercise I just could not figure out how to do. I was supposed to hop from tire to tire. Instead my avatar just stood there. I looked at the instructions a number of times. I tried different movements with the Wii controllers and different movements on the balance board. None of them worked. Every time I got that exercise I tried to do it, but my avatar would not move. It would have been nice to get some sort of feedback about what I was doing wrong. "More left", "More right", "faster", "slower", anything to get me moving in the correct way. Instead Jillian just kept making inane "you're doing great" comments. I certainly didn't feel like I was going great!

The Ugly
The graphics in Fitness Ultimatum were uninteresting. Given that during a exergame, there's not a lot to keep one's mind occupied. I think they should have taken greater strides to make the game visually appealing. I didn't particularly care for the music either.

The developers of Fitness Ultimatum really missed an opportunity. Wii Fit has sold tons of copies, and can barely stay on store shelves. The market is ripe for another fitness game. This one really missed the mark.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Lunch Works: Making Use of the Freezer

"Lunch Works", I like that. I wish I'd thought of it when I started my lunch series. On well, onward we go.

Once a month I cook one of my favorite recipes. I usually double the recipe to get 8 to 10 servings out of each. I will eat one serving for dinner on cooking day. I'll eat a second serving a day or two later for lunch. The rest get frozen in individual servings. Then next time I want that food, I just pull a serving out of the freezer!

Food Safety
When freezing, or doing anything with food, safety is my most important concern. Here are the food safety guidelines I follow:
1. Meat may be frozen once uncooked and once cooked.
2. Uncooked meats may be thawed in the refrigerator overnight or in cold water in the sink. It's generally a bad idea to leave frozen food just sitting out in the open.
3. Cooked dishes may be thawed in the refrigerator, or in the microwave when they are about to be eaten.
4. Freeze extra food the day of cooking, or the day after. Once unfreezing something, eat within 2 days.

Simple, eh? Freezing extends the storage time of food, but not the amount of time it can be stored unfrozen. So the basic idea is that if you would keep something for a total of 3 days unfrozen, the first day is "used up" for freezing, and the other 2 are available once you take it out of the freezer. And you always want to keep food at a safe storage temperature. That means it should spend the majority of its unfrozen time in the refrigerator or in an insulated lunch bag (with an ice pack if necessary).

Freezing Techniques
My goal in freezing anything is to preserve its quality. That means I need to keep the food as airtight as possible. I've tried a number of different techniques for doing this - everything from Zip-Loc bags, to expensive Rubbermaid containers, to a vacuum sealer. The two things that have worked out the best are Glad Press'n Seal wrap (for dry foods) and these microwave safe containers (for wet foods). Please note that I'm taking the manufacturers at their word when they say a container or a plastic wrap is microwave safe. If you prefer never to microwave in plastic, no problem. Just heat up your food in ways that you consider to be safe.

Press'n Seal is one of the best inventions ever. It allows us to make custom sized, airtight, wrapping for all sorts of things. I use Press'n Seal when I'm freezing cooked meat (slices of beef or ham), baked goods (brownies), cooked rice, and just about anything that is not too wet. Compared to Zip-Loc bags, Press'n Seal makes it easier to get all of the air out from around the food. Just press the wrap right up against the food. It doesn't matter if you're working with regular or odd shapes. Dry foods are particularly susceptible to freezer burn. To further guard against it, put the Press'n Seal packets inside Zip-Loc freezer bags.

To use Press'n Seal, tear off a piece big enough to overlap the food by about 2 inches on each side. Place the food on one side of the wrap. Fold the other side of the wrap over the food, and press the edges down. Squeeze out all of the air while you are pressing down the edges. Fold the edges up against the food. As you are wrapping up food, be careful to keep the edges of the wrap clean. It won't seal properly if it gets wet or greasy.

Wet things, such as soup, curries, and chili, are easier to freeze. The secret is to use an air-tight container, which is the same size as the quantity of food you are freezing. (Two inches of air at the top of the container would not be much help!) I used reusable containers for a long time. Unfortunately I have not found any which stand up to be repeatedly frozen and microwaved. After a few uses the seals wore down on the containers and they were no longer air-tight. Once that happens, they're not good for much of anything.

So I started searching for containers which are air-tight, cheap enough to be disposable, and microwave safe. The ones I use the most are these 8 ounce deli containers. I also have these 5 ounce containers for when I need to freeze in small quantities (side dishes and sauces). I'm not totally happy with using disposable containers, but, it's a better solution than trashing more expensive containers on a regular basis. Because they are meant to be disposable, they are thinner, which uses less plastic. If I'm going to be throwing something away, I'd rather it be these.

Fill each container most of the way full of food. Make sure the rim is clean, and then close with the lid. Don't overfill a container, or when the food freezes and expands, it'll take the lid off. No more air-tight seal when that happens!

If you are not sure how well a freezing technique will work, my best piece of advice is to try freezing a single serving of the food and see what happens. Check it after a week, a few weeks, etc. If the food survives a few weeks, defrost and taste. Make sure the taste was preserved as well.

Freezer Organization
It's a big help to keep a list of what's in the freezer. On the outside of mine I have a white-board, which I update every time I add or remove something. Each item is listed by name, date, and quantity. So I know that on December 31 I made quiche, and there are now 16 servings of it in the freezer. When I eat one, I'll change the quantity to 15, and so on. Labeling the foods themselves can also be a help.

There's lots of debate about how long frozen foods are still good. The guidelines I use are up to 6 months for wet foods, and up to 3 months for dryer foods. Really what I'm looking for is a decrease in food quality, not the food going bad. As long as something stays frozen, it's not likely to spoil, but 2 year old chicken probably isn't going to taste that good either. If you get in the habit of keeping food circulating, then eating everything in time should not be much of a problem.

The Eating
The most important thing to me when I choose foods to freeze is picking foods that I really enjoy eating. If I have a cooking accident and something doesn't turn out that great, I can guarantee that I'll let it sit in the freezer until I decide to throw it away. New recipes do make it into my list of favorites, but only after I've cooked them a few times in small quantities.

If you're looking for advice on freezing specific foods, please feel free to leave me comments with questions. I've included a lot of details in this post, but certainly not everything I know about freezing. Lunch in a Box also has a section on freezing in their top tips.

Good luck, and happy lunching :)