Monday, March 30, 2009

Android Games: Parallel Kingdom

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Coloroid, a game I've been playing on my G1. At the time I asked for suggestions for additional games, and two people said Parallel Kingdom. I downloaded it, gave it a shot, and now I'm officially hooked :)

Parallel Kingdom reminds me a lot of the 2D RPGs I loved when I was a kid. (Dragon Warrior was my favorite!) This time though, the map is a real world map, courtesy of Google Maps, rather than a tiled graphic. On this map you will find yourself, a variety of NPCs, trees, caves, and other players. By double clicking on a spot on the map, you can move to a new location. By single clicking, you can interact with creatures and objects on the map. (I recommend not attacking any large packs of animals until you've got your bearings ;) )

The space in which one can move is limited. It's a circle a mile or so in diameter. (No I haven't actually measured, but I should do that!) In order to go outside the circle, you have a few options:
1. Change your real world physical location. This is probably the best option early in the game.
2. Make friends with someone who can invite you to their location.
3. Plant flags, which you can then move to as long as you can see them. You can see flags that are up to a mile or so away. You can also move to caves that you control.
Other than moving, each area responds every 24 hours. So those trees you chopped down will do a Terminator and be back.

This real world mapping brings into play all sorts of cool possibilities. I was 40 miles away from home this weekend when I discovered my first cave. I got some stone from it while I was there, but I doubt I'll be back any time soon. When I get enough resources to build some flags, I look forward to placing them near my home or work, the two places I visit the most often. And I am totally going to build a little house on the location that corresponds with my real life dwelling.

Parallel Kingdom's online guide is a must read for details on the items and monsters in the game. The Parallel Kingdom forums also have a lot of good tips.

If you decide to check it out, send me a message and say hi. My Parallel Kingdom alter ego is named Koress.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bond, James Bond

Quantum of Solace was released yesterday, and geek husband was nice enough to bring a copy home for me. I've loved the Bond movies every since I was a little geek, and this one did not disappoint. In particular though, I spent most of this movie thinking: I want that phone!

Bond had, quite possibly, the coolest cell phone ever. It of course had the requisite feature of allowing Bond to place phone calls. More than that though, it acted as an instant communications portal between Bond and MI6. Mid-call, MI6 uploaded data on nefarious characters to Bond's phone. A few scenes later, Bond took pictures of people in a crowded auditorium, which came out so sharp that MI6 was able to use them for facial recognition.

The screen and interface of Bond's phone could file the wishlist of any handheld-o-phile. Details popped off the screen with sharpness that rivals the best HDTVs. It had no noticeable lag when moving from one display to another. The interface was touch sensitive, of course, and with a flick of a finger Bond easily maneuvered through the data which had been transmitted to his phone.

Many times in movies I've looked at a piece of tech and said: That's impossible. This phone experienced speed and clarity that we certainly do not yet have at our disposal. Yet... I can see the "grandfather" of many of these features in my G1. The touch screen interface, the ability to get the Internet anywhere I have service. Bond's phone of the future (without the direct line to MI6!) is coming! We move closer to it every day. Pretty soon we will all be able to feel like Bond, James Bond. (Insert Bond theme music here :) )

Monday, March 23, 2009

Geeks Guide to Tender Baked Goods

Have you ever read a recipe for pancakes which said "Stir ingredients until mixed. Some lumps are okay."? A few lumps in the pancake batter usually dissolve during cooking. On the other hand, if you stir the batter enough to get it completely smooth, you're likely to end up with tough pancakes. Why? Gluten!

As we learned when making bread, gluten is the protein in flour which makes it sticky. When we make bread, we want the gluten to develop so the dough will be stretchy, and the bread will be chewy. For other baked goods, such as cookies, muffins, and biscuits, developing the gluten will make them tough. I don't know about you, but I like my cookies crispy, my muffins tender, and my biscuits flaky. Tough did not appear anywhere in that list. (Neither did cakes! Cake recipes usually call for cake flour, which has less gluten than regular flour. So a cake batter can be beaten until it's the right consistency, without worrying about tough cakes.)

Two methods are commonly used to mix ingredients without developing the gluten, one is commonly used in cookie recipes, the other in biscuit recipes. Muffins and quick breads can go either way.

Cookie Method
Start by creaming the sugar and butter (or shortening). Then add the eggs, vanilla, and all other wet ingredients. Mix until everything is smooth. Next add the dry ingredients, flour and a leavening agent. Mix just until the dry ingredients are incorporated into the cookie batter. Lastly, stir in any chocolate chips, nuts, or other additions.

The key here is mixing everything except the flour very well, then mixing in the flour just enough. Once the flour is mixed in, stop! No need to keep mixing just for the heck of it.

Biscuit Method
This is the mixing technique used for biscuits and pie crusts. I find it a little harder to do than the cookie method, but if you have a food processor, you can cheat :)

Start with butter (or shortening) and flour. Use cold butter, even frozen if your arm can take it. Cut the butter into a few chunks, then use a pastry blender to cut the butter into the flour. If you don't have a pastry blender, two knives will do the trick. Hold one in each hand and cross them, scissor fashion. Keep cutting through the butter and flour until you have a crumbly mixture. If that sounds like a lot of work, it is! Food processors do a great job of cutting the butter into the flour though. If you have one, this is the perfect place to use it. Use the blade attachment, not the dough attachment. The goal is still to the cut the butter into the flour.

After the flour and butter are mixed, stir in any remaining dry ingredients. Then add the liquid ingredients all at once, and stir in until just mixed.

If your goal is flaky biscuits, pastries, or pie crusts, go for the biscuit method. If you are baking muffins or quick breads, you can choose either. Cookies work best with the cookie method.

If you've tried the above methods and your baked goods are still tough rather than tender, there's one final secret: use less gluten. You can either buy special pastry flours, or, substitute cake flour for some of the regular flour. Start with subbing 1/6 to 1/4 of the regular flour for cake flour, and see what happens. I do this from time to time in particularly troublesome recipes, and it works great :)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Some Thoughts on Bailouts

If I owned a small business, it would be my responsibility to keep it financially stable. I would have to manage my expenses and debts, so that I could meet all of my financial obligations. If I made a loan to someone who couldn't pay it back, I could go through the legal process, but in the end I may never recover the money. The unifying concept here is responsibility. A business owner is responsible for the health of the business. No one is standing buy to hand over cash in the case of a financial difficulty... until now for some of the largest businesses in the country.

So many bailouts have been announced in the past 6 months that I wouldn't be surprised who's getting federal money next. First it was the $700 billion bailout for an assortment of US banks. Then the plan to save the failing auto industry. The most recent uproar is over the millions of dollars paid in bonuses to AIG executives, after they received billions in federal funds as well. Some of the largest companies in the United States have all of a sudden become exempt from the responsibility that any business owner should face - that of maintaining their financial viability.

I've really questioned if we should bailout any of these companies or not. My gut instinct is that if a company is not profitable, that's their problem, not ours (after all, it's our tax money paying for these bailouts). They should have to deal with it like any organization, fix the problems or give up the company. Apparently the issue is not as simple as it seems. We have a responsibility to the people of our country, if not to the companies. I think this article did a good job of explaining those responsibilities.

The short version is, if a huge company like AIG fails, it's likely to take down a number of smaller companies with it. Or, if one or more of the auto giants were to collapse, that affects dealerships, car parts manufacturers, and everyone else involved in the auto business. Many believe that the cost of failure would be much higher than the cost of the bailouts... so we're taking the less expensive option.

The question I come back to time and again is: Is the system broken? If so, I'm not sure throwing any amount of money at it will fix the problem. It may delay the fall, but not prevent it. Part of me wonders if we wouldn't be better off going ahead and putting out money into managing the fallout rather than trying to prevent it. But I'm not sure that would be any better. I don't know much about our unemployment system, but it doesn't seem (to a casual observer) to be that effective in helping people get retrained and find new jobs. That system, in its own way, may be broken as well.

So what good could come out of this? There comes a point in most people's lives in which we face a crossroads. Times in which we have to choose to stay on our existing paths, or choose new ones. If anything, we are giving these companies the chance to come to their own crossroads. They now have the responsibility to honestly look at their own situations, and choose the best paths going forward. May they choose wisely.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Fast Food Follies: Thai Peanut Chicken with Noodles

Life's keeping me very busy these days. Here's a quick Thai chicken recipe I threw together for dinner one night this week.

Here's what you need:
6 ounces of rice noodles (more or less is okay)
1 lb boneless chicken breast fillets or tenders (get the tenders for quicker prep)
1 14oz can of coconut milk
1 packet A Taste of Thai peanut sauce mix (Great taste, and no MSG!)
1 lime

Here's how you cook it:
Cook the noodles. While the noodles are cooking, cut the chicken into bite sized pieces.
When the noodles are done, drain them and transfer to a temporary holding location.
In the pan you cooked the noodles in, stir fry the chicken with a little oil.
When the chicken is done, add the coconut milk and sauce mix. Bring to a simmer, and cook for 3-4 minutes. The sauce will thicken slightly.
Once the sauce is done, stir the noodles into the sauce.
For an authentic Thai flair, serve with lime wedges.

PS: If you're new to the kitchen and concerned about food safety, here's a chicken tip: Cut open a piece of the cooked chicken. If it's pink in the middle, it's not done yet. Cooked chicken is white the whole way through. You can also check doneness with an instant read thermometer.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Andriod Games: Coloroid

If you have a G1, you've probably discovered the app market by now. If not, stop what you're doing and go check it out! While you're there, don't pass up the games section. Some of them are quite nifty, and everything I've played so far has been free.

My favorite Android game to date is Coloroid. Coloroid starts with a grid of multi-colored blocks. The game is played from the top left. Click one of the 6 colors, and the top left block will change to that color. If you've chosen wisely, that is if you've chosen a color which was adjacent to the top left block, that block will join with the newly colored block. As you keep changing the group of blocks, it grows and continues to merge with any touching blocks of the same color. The goal is to turn the whole screen into a single color.

Coloroid has 32 levels. The lowest level has a board which is 4x4. At each level increase, the size of the board grows by one. The highest level tops out with a 35x35 board. Each lever also has a par, a max number of moves in which to win. I zipped through the early levels pretty quickly, but once I got to board which were 20x20 or more, I was quite challenged. I'm still working my way up to 35x35.

I've played a handful of other Android games, a couple of which I liked enough to review in the future. If you have a favorite Android game, please share it with us in the comments :)

Friday, March 13, 2009

LLG is Twittering

I have a few followers of my Twitter feed so far. Check it out here. If you want to know what your resident geek is reading, Twitter is the best way to find out. I update the feed regularly with links to geek friendly articles, which are most often tech related. Along with 100 characters or so of witty commentary.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fun with Pocket Sandwiches

As I've been experimenting with the bread recipes from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, I've been thinking of all of the cool things that can be done with bread dough in the house. Fresh bread is the obvious one. Dough for pizza, flat bread, and seasoned rolls are all delicious options. And the thing I've been experimenting with this week: do-it-yourself pocket sandwiches :)

Monday I mixed up a batch of olive oil dough from Artisan Bread in Five. I chose the olive oil dough for two reasons: the olive oil flavor compliments the sandwiches very well (and I believe will taste great as pizza dough), second, bread with some oil in it keeps much better than bread without any oil. Oil acts as a preservative. When bread dough is mixed with a little bit of oil, the bread stays fresher longer, and freezes much better. Than means I can make a bunch of pocket sandwiches, freeze most of them, and they should keep very well for a month or so.

When choosing fillings for my sandwiches I went with traditional meat and cheese. I did ham and cheese; ham, salami, and cheese; and ground beef, onions, and cheese. The last one was going to be meatballs, but the beef was frozen when I started cooking, so I just cooked it loose. When working with meat, food safety becomes far more critical than working with bread alone. All fillings need to be ready to eat. Deli meats are fine as-is. Beef, chicken, and any other meat you want to use needs to be cooked before making sandwiches.

Making Pocket Sandwiches
To make the olive oil dough, start with the master recipe, reduce the amount of water by 1/4 of a cup, and add 1/4 of a cup of olive oil. Also add 1 tablespoon of sugar. The rest of the recipe is the same. Mix the dough, let it sit on the counter for a couple of hours, then refrigerate overnight (or upto 12 days). You can use the dough after the 2 hour rise, but, it will be harder to work with. I found that one night in the fridge remarkably improved the dough texture.

To make each sandwich:
1. Grab a handful of dough from the big batch, and cut it off with a knife or kitchen scissors.

2. Place the dough on a floured or greased surface. Either of those will keep the dough from sticking. Flour is traditional, but I actually have more luck with oil most of the time. A little oil on my hands helps the dough not stick to my hands.
3. Spread the dough out to a square which is about 6 by 8 inches. It doesn't need to be perfect. If the dough starts "fighting back", give it a few seconds to relax. When doing the big batch, I worked with two pieces of dough at a time, alternating between them. The picture here shows a spread out piece of dough.

4. Add fillings. The sandwich is going to be flipped over, so whatever you want on the top should be the first filling you put in the dough. I did cheese first, then meat. Here's a picture of a salami, ham, and cheese (left), and a ham and cheese (right), sandwiches ready to be closed. The cheese is under the meat, so it's not visible in the picture.

5. Fold up the sandwich. Start with the ends and fold them over the fillings. Then bring in the edges. Do your best to seal it up.
6. Lift the sandwich, flip it over, and place it in the baking pan.
7. Let rise for 15 minutes. The short rise is once again for food safety. They don't really need a longer rise though, due to the thinness of the dough. Here's the tray of sandwiches ready to go into the oven.

8. Bake at 450 for 22-25 minutes. Here's the same sandwiches after they've come out of the oven. The cheese melted out of the top of one, which is what I wanted to happen, and out of the bottom of the others. I need to work on sealing them better, and providing bigger vents on top, next time! :)

Repeat steps 1-6 for each sandwich, then give them a 15 minute rise once they're all done. Once I'd made a couple, I got pretty quick with spreading the dough and filling the sandwiches. I started the second batch of sandwiches while the first set were rising. They were done in about 20 minutes, and had their 15 minute rise while the first batch was baking.

Here's one of my homemade pocket sandwiches (on the right) next to a Hot Pocket (on the left).

The Hot Pocket was ham and cheese. My sandwich was ground beef, onions, and cheese. I put more filling in mine than was in the Hot Pocket. Mine was delicious :) I can't vouch for the Hot Pocket, geek husband ate it. Husband tasted my sandwich also and suggested it was a little dry. Next time I'll serve it to him with some tomato sauce on the side. The homemade ham and cheese sandwiches are also quite tasty.

Cost Comparison
The Hot Pockets were 2 for $2.50, or $1.25 each. I made 10 homemade sandwiches. I spent about $9 on ingredients, making those sandwiches $0.90 each. Note that my sandwich cost takes into account that I will use all of the left over ingredients in other recipes. I had about 1/3 of the dough, 1/3 of the cheese, and a little bit of meat left over.

Truthfully the savings alone probably would not be enough for me to take the time to make my own sandwiches. The benefit I like far more is that I have control over everything I cook. I know what's in my ingredients. I know what's in the food. I can add more or less filling. I can make sandwiches which have more meat in them for my husband. If I already have dough in the house, it's also a great way to get a quick hot meal.

Filling Ideas
I would love to try these with cooked chicken, bacon and cheese. I'm also curious how they'd do with cheese sauce (homemade or Cheese Whiz) instead of sliced cheese. If I were making pizzas, it would be a great idea to wrap up some extra pepperoni and cheese. Homemade or frozen (and then cooked) meatballs would be fabulous, and far easier to work with than the loose meat. Sliced steak, cooked onions and peppers, and cheese would make a pocket cheese steak sandwich. The possibilities are endless! :)

Monday, March 9, 2009

Fun with Browser Games

Browser games are certainly nothing new. I used to wile away hours on Yahoo!Games many years ago. A couple of months ago I discovered a new type of browser games, ones where the game play takes place over several days, weeks, and months, with only a few clicks from me each day. The goal of these games is building and conquest. That is, to build a town, defend it with an army, and perhaps venture out to pillage other lands. I've tried a couple of these games, and the one I like the best so far is Ikariam.

Upon starting Ikariam a new player receives a town on an island. The island will be shared with several other towns, and have two resources available, one being building material (which looks suspiciously like wood), and the other will be one of the four luxury resources (marble, wine, sulphur, or crystal). The town starts off very small, with just a town hall and a handful of resources to get started. Build a few buildings and assign some workers to the island resources to get started.

As the game develops players can choose to work together or play a more aggressive game. Players ally together for fun and profit. Alliances are then ranked on each server. I haven't seen an endgame yet, so I don't know if one alliance is ever declared a winner, or if alliances fight for the top indefinitely. Points may be gained by building up various parts of a town, from buildings to armies. A friendly alliance will trade resources among players, and provide protection when a player is attacked. An aggressive alliance may band together to wage war against another alliance. Players may also choose independently to pillage other towns, stealing their resources.

Ikariam really thrives on player cooperation. Players may trade cultural treaties, in which cultural goods are exchanged from one player to another. Culture makes townspeople happy. Players also join together to develop the resources locations on each island by donating building materials to the resource. When enough building materials are donated, the resource will upgrade automatically and supply more goods in the future. While I enjoy the occasional pillage as much as the next geek, I think the cooperative nature of this game is a particular plus. In another browser game I played, I was attacked so often my town never had a chance to grow. In Ikariam that has not been the case. Occasionally I've had to set up a defense, but not so often to be a problem.

Play or Not?
Playing Ikariam is free! You can buy upgrades that make the game go a little faster, but I've refrained from doing that. I'll make it on my own or not at all. Compared to other online games, this one is not at all time intensive. I can manage my towns in one visit per day. Given the low investment on my part, and the fun cooperative nature, I can't help but enjoy this one. My towns are thriving. My alliance is banding together to help everyone grow. And I can't wait to see how the game develops over time. If you think this would be your type of fun, check it out. Either way it turns out, there's nothing to lose :)

Tips for Newbies
Your town will be placed randomly. By far the easiest island to start on is one with marble. You can also get by pretty easily if you have wine or crystal, as those sell well. Sulphur is mainly used to build troops, so unless your world is at war, will probably not be the most valuable resource.

As soon as your first town is stable, build the palace to level 2, and strike out with a second town. Having two towns is a big tactical advantage. If someone comes to pillage, you will often have enough time to move your stored resources from one town to the other.

If someone's coming to pillage and you have no hope of defending your town, the best defense is to spend all of your resources before they get there. Pillaging does not take gold or destroy buildings. The player will attack your troops and take any resources which are not protected in your warehouse. If you don't have any extra resources, they come away empty handed. A smart pillager won't pillage an empty town for very long!

Lastly, check out the Ikariam forums. They have a lot of tips and great discussions :)

Friday, March 6, 2009

Geeks on Spring Break

I teach at a nifty little place named Seton Hill University. I'm one of the resident geeks there too, only they call me a professor instead of a geek. Next week SHU is on spring break, and I've got all sorts of geeky plans to fill up my time :)

About a month ago I started playing World of Warcraft. I'm certainly not new to the MMORPG genre. I shepherded my Everquest character from creation to level 68. I've also done my time in EQ2, and dabbled in a handful of other MMORPGs. I am however new to WoW. My little shammy is currently level 33, and I want to put a good 10 levels on her over the next week. That won't catch me up to my level 80 friends, but it'll give me a boost :)

After I started watching SGA, I knew that it would not be long before I wanted to see Stargate SG-1. Earlier this week I checked out prices on Amazon, and ordered the first season. I did not get quite as good of a good deal on it as I did with the SGA seasons at Best Buy, but the price wasn't bad either. I did see the Stargate movie many years ago, and I can't wait to find out how the television hit got started.

Lastly, I have a couple of ideas for really cool LLG blog posts. The thing holding me back is that these are going to take some time to gather the material for. Over break I'll have some time and I can do just that. So, you can look forward to a couple of extra special posts in the future :) If you would like some good reading in the mean time, back when I was first blogging, I wrote this awesome post on geeky grocery shopping. Check it out! :)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Great Bread Flop

After my mini bread experiments, I let the bread dough sit in the refrigerator for about a week without touching it. Hard to imagine bread dough sitting around like that, but the cold I was dealing with really killed my appetite. I went back to it yesterday to discover... mold! The top had gotten all hard and moldy. Needless to say, I threw away all of the remaining dough. I am going to thoroughly wash my dough storage container and start a fresh batch in the next week or so.

I did learn one thing from my second bread experiment. The bread machine knead didn't change things significantly. The bread machine had trouble with such a wet dough, it did not appear to be doing much kneading.

I also noticed something else more fully this time which I think is the real key to dough consistency. One night in the refrigerator does wonders for the consistency of the dough. The day the dough is mixed, it is just too sticky to work with. After it sits in the fridge overnight, it shapes much easier, forming a nicely rounded loaf. I think it is that resting time which really "makes" the dough.

I was really disappointed when I saw the unusable dough. I had a fantastic idea for a quick meal that night, that didn't happen! I was going to roll up slices of ham and cheese into a piece of dough, and bake as usual. I predict that that would make an awesome hot sandwich, far better than a Hot Pocket, and probably a lot cheaper!

Next week I'm on spring break. I plan on trying both the hot sandwich idea and making homemade pizzas. I'll take pictures and report back! :)