Step Away From the Keyboard

TUCKER HOTTES reminds us to remember our canine pals in summer heat

 

 

Fireworks not always fun for pooches
We finally passed the official entry point to summer, and boy did it come all at once. I’m suddenly reminded of summers I spent in southern Georgia, with brutal humidity and pretty much daily thunderstorms. My plants seem to be happy about it, and I’m sure PPL Electric is happy to see all the  air conditioners finally firing up in earnest. A few friends and coworkers are happy to be enjoying their pools (lucky SOBs — you know who you are).
There is something important to talk about this time of year, though, with a minor tie-in to last week’s anecdote about my dog’s fear of the robo-vacuum. With more frequent thunderstorms in the summer, and the fireworks season in full swing, please keep our canine friends in mind. Many dogs (including my dog, Stella) are terrified by loud noises and can run unpredictably when something scares them.
Make sure your dogs’ collars are securely fastened and they have up-to-date tags. In addition to her city license and rabies tag, I make sure to keep a custom tag with my phone number and address in case she ever gets loose. Unfortunately, you’re much likelier to have someone call you directly than take the time to contact animal control and check the license information.
When you’re celebrating outdoors, or a storm is approaching, make sure your dog stays indoors. In a storm, fencing can come down unexpectedly due to wind or tree limbs. Be mindful of gates and guests as well. In short, it’s best to keep a scared dog inside. They tend to prefer dark spaces, and Stella will even stick her head (just her head, since the rest of her won’t fit) under my bed when she’s trying to “hide.” She might not be the brightest bulb sometimes, but I won’t fault her for trying.
Even if you’re not a dog person, remember that someone out there would be devastated to lose his or her pet. If you’re planning on having a fireworks display (you have all the right permits, right? Right…), it would be courteous to check with any neighbors about pets who might be scared. Of course, if anyone has loose dogs in your neighborhood, they should be confined in the first place, but that’s another topic.
In the event you spot a lost dog, be careful to assess the situation. Scared dogs can act aggressively if they feel threatened, so instead of pursuing the dog, it’s best to see if you can coax it to you so you can check the collar. If you are unsure at all, or the dog looks like it may be aggressive (ears down, teeth exposed, tail low and not wagging), stay away and report the sighting to local animal control officers.
They may already be aware of a lost dog and be able to dispatch someone. We spend a lot of time in the summer celebrating and enjoying life outdoors, so please make sure your pets are taken care of as well. I wish I could talk rationally to Stella and explain there’s nothing to be  afraid of during a storm, but when I try, she just looks at me with trusting, but not understanding, brown eyes.

Step Away from the Keyboard

When his dog declares it’s time for a walk, TUCKER HOTTES listens

 

Stella knows best
The nice weather has been fickle so far this year — we’ve had fits and starts of warmth, broken up by rain and general crappy cloudiness. I’ve learned to (mostly) stop complaining, and just enjoy it when the sun is shining. This weekend, I was able to attack my lawn and feel somewhat responsible in my landscaping duties. Small victories.
Much more enjoyable, however, was a quick trip up to Lackawanna State Park with my dog, Stella, for a little 5-mile hike. She’ll crack the 3-year mark sometime in the next month (one of those pesky rescues with a helpful birthdate of “sometime in July”), so while she’s lost some of the puppy craziness, she still enjoys to get out and remind me that she’s in better shape than I am. After tackling the aforementioned yard work, she gave me a look that told me her usual routine of avoiding the lawn mower was insufficient in her idea of a fun weekend.
Staying on the lawn for a moment, it amazes me that I can pull out the lawn mower — a big, loud, gas guzzling piece of deadly machinery — and Stella regards it with little more than a casual “I’d better get out of the way” glance and slow saunter to another part of the yard. On the other hand, if I fire up the damn Roomba to do its business cleaning my floor, she slinks upstairs and hides like I unleashed an abomination.  The murderous whirling blades of doom and devastation spinning as fast as my 190cc, 6.5 horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine can propel them are no big deal. The feeble action of a one-foot-wide robot vacuum cleaner that struggles with dust bunnies under the couch sends her over the edge. I’ll never understand it.
After Stella casually watched me finish the lawn, while taking care to relocate any bones she’d buried around the yard, she waited just inside the doorway as I returned from putting the mower away. As I came inside, ready to jump in the shower after so much grass murder, she stopped in front of her food and water dishes and gave me a pointed stare, then cast her gaze upward where her leash hangs. I’m well versed in certain phrases in Dog-ese, and I know that one well. I still had a little energy, and it was a gorgeous day, so I told her we’d hit up the state park for a quick hike. She likely didn’t understand any of it, but she knows enough human-ese to know that “hike” means “time to wag the tail because shit’s about to get real.”
It was nice to see big crowds around the picnic areas, and tons of people fishing from the shore or out on the water. I saw a few groups of inexperienced kayakers, which always makes me happy (hey, nobody said you have to be good to have fun — we’ve all got to start somewhere). I talked to a guy who’d seen some bass jumping toward the middle, but he lamented they just weren’t coming in close enough. I laughed and told him he needs to get some waders and a fly rod. Then I got sad, because I haven’t had any good time on the river so far. Fortunately, the quickest remedy for being sad about lack of time in the outdoors is to spend some time outdoors, so Stella kept plodding on and that put a smile back on my face.

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WEB MASTER TUCKER HOTTES is suffering from serious sticker shock

 

The hefty price of gaming this fall
Everybody get out your wallets and start stuffing as much money as you can into a big jar — it’s going to be an expensive fall. We’ve gotten information about the next generation of video game consoles in dribs and drabs over the last few months, but the cats are finally out of their respective bags. We now know about as much about the new systems as we’re going to learn until people get their hands on them in November.
But first, let’s get the two most important numbers out of the way: $499 and $399.
The sure-to-confuse-grandmothers-nationwide Xbox One will tip the charts at a cool half-grand, and the predictably named PlayStation 4 will hit shelves for a hundred bones less. This is almost an exact reversal of the last console launch, when the Xbox 360 had $299 and $399 packages, while the PS3 had $499 and $599 packages. Of course, the other major difference is that both teams have taken the one-size-fits-all approach. Hardware-wise, the Xbox One will also include the Kinect 2.0 camera, while the PS4 won’t include any camera or motion hardware (a new version of the PlayStation Eye camera will retail separately for $59).
Now, it’s not terribly surprising that the new consoles will attract a price premium, but time will surely tell how sales hold up this holiday season. We’re talking about an industry that keeps telling us how much they’re struggling with console sales; on one hand, they insist mobile gaming is killing consoles, on the other hand they expect us to shell out a cool 500 bucks for the privilege of buying $60 games.
Ah, right, games — that’s the purpose, isn’t it? This is the reason I spent so much time talking about price. Both Sony and Microsoft showed off a few of their next-gen titles at their press conferences. Both manufacturers also leaned heavily on showcasing cross-platform titles. This is especially a bad thing for Microsoft — when you’re the most expensive console in the room, you’d better damn well have a reason for it. Microsoft’s reasons appear to be tied into Kinect, a peripheral of questionable popularity and one that’s already drawing some controversy with its always-on, always-listening “features.” I suspect in the wake of the nationwide collective NSA surveillance freakout, Microsoft might have shot themselves in the foot there.
Then there’s Sony. They spent a lot of time taking digs at Microsoft and the brouhaha surrounding digital rights management and the rumor that Xbox One games won’t be trade-able. They didn’t, however, spend very much time talking about why their system should be the one to pick when standing in the aisle in Best Buy (or looking at the video games section of Amazon, more likely). It’s a risky move to tie your horse almost entirely to making fun of the other guys while showing trailers for the 15 millionth Final Fantasy.
There’s more at E3 from publishers themselves, but the big console announcements were where the real meat was. And in an attempt to be completely non-partisan, I have to say they were both pretty underwhelming. This might be a round of the console wars I sit out, or at least wait for a significant price drop. Regardless, both consoles are now available for pre-order if you happen to have a thousand bucks to drop.

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don’t bother trying to reach him.

WEB MASTER TUCKER HOTTES is gaming.

 

Candy (Crush) addiction
As many readers know, I’ve played my fair share of video games in my day. I even talk about them here more than is healthy — but I’m far from obsessed, and by comparison to some of my friends, I am in fact more of a casual gamer. But on the whole, my genres are anything but casual: first-person shooter, action, music/rhythm (aka Rock Band), fighting, etc. Sure, I’ve played a few rounds of Angry Birds and dabbled in a little Cut the Rope, but overall I don’t use my phone for gaming that much.
Recently, though, I have to admit to an addiction. It’s an addiction to a game that’s already sucking the life away from millions of people, and seemingly every person I meet. For a few weeks in  the office, I heard rumblings from surprising sources discussing a game. These weren’t co-workers who normally pass the time with games (casual or not), so I was curious, but not super interested. One day, I asked a friend what it was all about, and she showed me Candy Crush Saga.
It’s pretty innocuous — a “match-three” style game, modeled after Bejeweled (released in 2001, for the record), which I had played around with many, many years ago when it was just a random Flash game to kill time in between (OK, sometimes during) class. I didn’t really see what the big deal was. More time passed, though, and around me more and more people were getting sucked into the thing, shaking their fists with rage, and occasionally swearing it off entirely (only to return within a day or two).
Quietly, on an idle night a couple weeks ago, I downloaded the game on a whim. The simple action and colorful bonuses when getting big points took me back to the Bejeweled days and hit the same pleasure points. It was fun, but not really ‘addictive’ per se. Eventually, I hit a level that wasn’t so simple and got stuck, wasting one of my five ‘lives’ in the process. Once I ran out of lives, I got a fancy little splash screen with a crying (candy?) heart and a countdown letting me know when my next life would be regenerated.
It seemed that was the hook — run out of lives, and you can buy more, or connect to Facebook to spam friends for extra lives. I vowed not to do that, set the phone down, and went on with my life. When I next picked up the game, I blew right past the level and kept going. Until I hit the next road block: unlocking the next area. That’s where the game got me. You can pay to keep going on in the levels, but short of that, the only way to progress is to connect to Facebook and ask friends for ‘tickets’ to the next level. Cunning.
I’m sure the developers are laughing all the way to the bank — it’s really a genius way to scam people without really scamming them. I’ve heard friends and coworkers accusing friends of theirs of buying their way up the ladder, while alternately begging those same friends for extra lives and ticket requests like a junkie curled up outside a crackhouse.

Step Away from the Keyboard

 TUCKER HOTTES is ready for summer, even if mother nature isn’t quite on board.

 

Ah, the fire pit. Finally!
The glimpse of some less-than-crappy weather peeking through the last week has brought with it a little hope that perhaps the cold and rain won’t last forever. I had a chance to do a real-scale grilling operation Sunday, taking advantage of the long Memorial Day weekend. After all, throwing a party Monday night and coming in on Tuesday isn’t such a great idea. I know it’s tradition and all, but I prefer to take a recovery day.
We did celebrate a bit on Memorial Day, though — I borrowed my neighbor’s axe and split up a couple of the logs I had chainsawed a few weeks ago. It was hard going, and I definitely need a heavier axe for the task. While the logs were nice and dry, and even had a split to start, the poplar wood is hard as hell. It was like trying to split concrete blocks. I eventually succeeded, though, with all extremities intact and ended up with a nice pile of firewood.
I have a metal, freestanding fire pit that I occasionally drag out to the yard when I want to build a fire. Once, I was feeling lazy and decided the legs put it high enough up that there would be no problems on the wood deck. It didn’t go as poorly as you’d think, but I did wind up having a stain where some of the deck sealant oozed out. A year and a half later and it’s completely gone, but subsequent times I placed some thick plywood down as a barrier.
This time, I didn’t feel like dragging a giant piece of plywood up just for a quick fire, so I located some bricks from the brick pile in the back yard (yes, there’s a brick pile) and propped up the feet, adding a solid three or four inches to the space between the bottom of the fire pit and the boards of the deck. It worked like a charm, and it’s actually kind of nice to elevate the whole thing a little. Though I do enjoy the smell of a nice campfire (one of my favorite things about camping), the odor does have a tendency to linger — and stale, old wood smoke smell is not the most attractive thing in the world. Since I’d lit up a fire with all my windows open, when I arrived home for lunch the next day, the entire place smelled like the inside of a camper. With the immediate return to cold and dampness, the heavy smoke particles have just settled down and made my place smell like an old cabin.
It’s tolerable for now, but once it starts getting that acidy-too-old-smoke smell, I’m firing up the candles and going to work. I’ll also have to remember the windows situation in the future; no need to have to fumigate my house every time I want to light up a little fire.
I hope everyone had a nice weekend in spite of the awful fluctuating weather, and here’s to things improving over the next few weeks to make our outdoor activities a little more fun. Monday was the unofficial start to summer, after all.

Step Away from the Keyboard

A sure sign of summer: TUCKER HOTTES is grillin’!

 

So many grilling choices, so little time
It’s been more of a simmer than a sizzle to start heading into summer, but we’re trying as hard as possible to get in the spirit. I’ve been forcing shorts and short sleeves even when I’m grilling in cold winds with drizzle, and I’ve even forced myself to mow the lawn in overcast, wet conditions. Soon enough we’ll be moaning about the heat and humidity, but it sure is taking its time.
I’ve used my charcoal kettle grill religiously for almost a decade now, and while I’d never trade its flavor and cooking characteristics, I do enjoy firing up gas every now and again — especially when I’m grilling at someone else’s place. Over the weekend, I had the privilege of setting up a new gas grill at my mom’s house (well, wheeling it into place is more like it — I took advantage of the free assembly, because I decided to spare myself an hour or two of frustration, and spare the neighbors an hour or two of foul language). I threw on a nice, thick cut of steak that had been marinating in some Teriyaki sauce for about a day. It grilled up beautifully, but I felt guilty about the blackened carbon drippings from all the sugar in the Teriyaki, so I spent twice the normal cleanup time making the grill look new again.
One of the nicest things about cooking on gas is the temperature management. When cooking steak — especially thick cuts — it’s a good idea to give a 30-second high-heat sear on both sides to seal in the juices before closing the lid and letting the steak cook at medium heat. On gas, that’s as easy as cranking down the knob(s) when the sear is done. On my charcoal grill, though, there’s an enormous amount of pre-planning for such a thing.
To achieve a quick transition from a high-heat sear to a medium cooking temperature on charcoal, you’ll  need to build what’s known as a two-zone fire. That is, one half of the grill needs a nice high stack of  coals, and the other half needs the sort of basic layer you’d use for cooking a burger. I use a chimney starter, and the cooking surface of my grill has hinged sides to add more charcoal. This helps alleviate some of the issues of using charcoal, but it’s still important to mind the big pile (high heat) and small pile (medium heat). If either one starts to sag in temperature, your two-zone cooking is out the window.
Slow cooking on charcoal is even more complicated. You’ll want nice, medium heat on the outer edges of the grill, with an empty area and pan of water in the middle. The pan of water serves only as a regulator. All heat will come from the edges and circulate with the grill’s lid down. Meat should go above the pan, so it’s only getting the low, indirect heat circulating throughout the grill when it’s closed.
Again, this is where the side-hinged grate comes in handy. If you’re cooking something like ribs that will need to slow-cook for hours, you’ll be dumping in quite a few coals over the duration.
Now, I’ve pulled off all manner of multi-zone charcoal fire, including some where I’ve spiced things up by throwing on some wood chips (pro-tip: always soak all wood chips for at least an hour before using in a smoking/grilling situation). It’s rewarding and tastes amazing. But, hot damn is it nice and easy to have a knob to turn when you don’t feel like messing with coals.
Regardless, fire up those grills and enjoy a sizzlin’ summer.

Step Away from the Keyboard

 TUCKER HOTTES and mom are ready for summer with Grills & Chainsaws

 

Nothing says Happy Mother’s Day like a new chainsaw (?)
Usually, we think of Mother’s Day as a holiday filled with brunch, flowers, teacups, and junk like that. My  mom, however, is cooler than that, so Mother’s Day included a trip to the hardware store for a new grill and a chainsaw, followed by beer and hot wings for lunch. Of course, this was merely preliminary to the upcoming weekend installing that grill and going to work with the chainsaw.
The grill is no sweat — I’m looking forward to setting it up and throwing some steaks on to break it in. I’m traditionally a charcoal guy, but my mom prefers the convenience of gas (and some days, I really can’t blame her). Her last grill is basically falling apart and becoming potentially dangerous, so it’s high time we toss that thing to the curb and replace it with something that she doesn’t have to cross her fingers and light with a long lighter. The new rig is a little higher end as well, so it should last longer and do a little better job.
Firing up a new chainsaw, on the other hand, makes me a little more apprehensive. I’ve run all sorts of power tools and outdoor equipment, so it’s not my first time with heavy-duty hardware. Over the years, though, a chainsaw is one of the few pieces of power equipment I’ve never used. Naturally, being a nerd, I dove straight into the manual to learn more about the machine. And at the end of just about every paragraph is yet another “Warning: failure to do X, Y, or Z will result in grievous bodily harm or death.” Comforting.
Still, at the end of the day, it’s just a little two-cycle engine (that just so happens to have a giant, sharp chain freely rotating along 60 percent of its length), which means the device itself can’t be any more difficult to operate than my gas weed trimmer. Slap a little bottle of that two-stroke oil in a gallon gas can, open up the choke, and start pulling on that cord until the blue smoke billows out steadily. Then rev the sucker up to full throttle, run forward screaming bloody murder, and scare the bejesus out of everyone in the area. OK, I think that last part might not have been part of the acceptable usage guidelines set forth in the manual. I had originally been looking to borrow a friend’s saw — there are tons of trees surrounding my mom’s place, and occasionally they fall in inconvenient spots like the driveway, or on top of her raised box vegetable garden. In years past, a kind friend or neighbor has stopped by her place to help with the  removal, but to be honest, most of them are getting up there in the years, and it doesn’t feel right to ask for the favor. So, when my buddy said his chainsaw wasn’t starting properly, I decided to extend the gift of service on Mother’s Day and pick up one of my own — after all, it’ll be time to start planting soon, and I certainly can’t move a 60-foot downed poplar with my bare hands.

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WHAT WILL WEB MASTER TUCKER HOTTES DO AFTER THE SEASON FINALE OF THE OFFICE?

 

Nerding out at The Office
It was a bit of an unusual weekend in my world — I’ve spent the last few weeks helping organizers get together the mammoth Office Wrap Party, an event that hit several centers of my nerd brain. I’d been a fan of the show since before moving to Scranton in ’07, so my inner T.V. nerd was rejoicing at the celebration. I also got to see a lot of awesome behind-the-scenes stuff at PNC Field (shout-out to Cameron Wengrzyn and the team in the control booth!), so my inner a/v nerd enjoyed seeing all the production magic.
The insight into the show at the Behind the Scenes Panel was one of my highlights as well — it’s not so often you get to hear straight from the horses’ mouths how editing and writing decisions were made on such an acclaimed show. People such as Director of Photography Matt Sohn and Editor Claire Scanlon are true unsung heroes of comedy.
Then Sunday afternoon rolled around, and just like that, it was time to rejoin the real world. It’s kind of a weird feeling — ever since helping out with the first Office Convention, there’s been some Office-related event or another (including helping for a few years of Fan Tours) on the horizon. Now, with the show over, it’s the first time there’s no potential events on deck. Of course, someone did ask me over the weekend when the reunion would be scheduled, but I don’t think we’ll be worrying about that any time soon.
Returning to normal things like clearing off my DVR and dusting off video games felt a little odd after running around among massive crowds and seeing celebrities walk around all weekend. I sat down to play a few quick rounds of Injustice: Gods Among Us with a friend, and promptly got my ass kicked. Clearly, while I was slacking in the fighting game the last two weeks, he was practicing diligently.
I’m also slowly catching up on my DVR backlog — I’ve got several episodes left of shows that are wrapping up or have already ended, and with new stuff on the verge of starting up I’d like to have a clean slate and lots of hard drive space for new recordings. I need to work an extra day into the week just for T.V. watching.
Speaking of hard drives, I’ve been shopping around for a really big one to serve as my house’s media storage. I’ve talked a few times within these pages about my scattered media collection, but with new housemates and a sweet new router, I’ve decided it would be beneficial to add NAS (network attached storage) to centralize everything. It sure will be nice to have a location on the network where we can store and share our mass collections of digital music and movies. It’ll make worrying about which computer or device has which items, and whether or not said device is turned on, much less of a hassle. The drive will be plugged right into the router, and it’ll just serve up whatever we need on demand.
So, in the wake of a once-in-a-lifetime event, it’s time to return to my normal levels of nerding around.

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after a brief hiatus, WEB MASTER TUCKER HOTTES is gaming again

 

Finally, video games I can really get into
For a while, I’ve been a little disillusioned with video games. Over the past year, I hadn’t played anything that really grabbed me. I spent a decent amount of time with a few games, but it felt mostly like going through the motions, and there were plenty games I just skipped altogether. Lots of sequels have hit the shelves, and while they push the right buttons (get it?), they just didn’t feel fresh — and worse, I haven’t played a game that was really fun through and through in what feels like a long time. I’ve had diminishing time to play games as well, so I’d been feeling pretty bummed about gaming in general.
Over the past couple weeks, though, two games have really perked me up. BioShock Infinite — a first-person shooter — and Injustice: Gods Among Us — a fighting game — are recent releases that feel fresh in their own ways. On the surface, an FPS and a fighter aren’t exactly genres known for mass innovation, but these two are welcome additions that will be setting high bars for a while to come. Here’s a pair of mini-reviews with my impressions:

BioShock Infinite
While technically a follow-up to the pair of previous BioShock titles, Infinite is essentially an entirely new game. Set in a retro-futuristic, steampunk-style alternate 1912, the player explores “Columbia,” a floating city that broke away from the United States at the turn of the century. The world is stunningly beautiful – there hasn’t been an FPS with this much color in, well, I can’t remember any. After running around claustrophobic environments made in shades of brown for the past several years, it’s unbelievably refreshing to play a game that’s so alive.
The atmosphere is fantastic, and the creepy sci-fi elements that peek around the edges of the excellent story help drive the mystery of “something’s not right here.” As a disclaimer, I haven’t yet finished playing through the game, though friends of mine who are highly critical of storylines have given the story high praise. Overall, I haven’t played a shooter that felt so “new” forever, and Bioshock Infinite has delivered in spades.

Injustice: Gods Among Us
From the folks who brought us the genre-defining Mortal Kombat, we exchange fatalities and blood for superpowers and explosions. Injustice brings heroes (and a villain or two) into an alternate DC Universe where Superman has gone nuts and essentially enslaved humanity, using the rest of the Justice League as his flunkies. Look, it’s flimsy, but it gives us a reason to pit some of DC’s best heroes and villains against each other in a surprisingly deep story mode.
Fighting games can be tough for casual or new players, but Injustice gives us a simple-to-grab, hard-to-master type setup. Powerful moves and fun combos are simple to pull off, but more advanced fighting game players should find plenty of ways to keep things fresh. All characters have a signature super move, all of which are simple to pull off and a blast to watch. The game is just damned fun, with environments exploding around you as Batman punches Doomsday through three walls and into a whole new arena. Characters just “feel” right to play, and it’s enjoyable even when getting your ass kicked by Aquaman (this happens a lot, oddly).

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WEB MASTER TUCKER HOTTES can even nerd up the craft brew fest!

 

Making a beer spreadsheet, and checking it twice
Beer! It’s a big part of many activities, from the back yard grilling session, to tailgates at events, to late-night gaming sessions. Like many of us, my real start with beer was drinking the crappiest, cheapest kind possible while in college. Early on, though, I recognized that the swill from kegs and $8 cases was crap, and there was an enormous world full of brews to enjoy. I spent time in England learning the ABCs of Ales, Bitters, and Ciders, and took a trip with friends to find out what Belgium had to offer. We took a train through the town of Plzn in the Czech Republic, where the eponymous Pilsner was born and drank the funny half-pints that are popular in Eastern Europe.
Back in the U.S., I’ve always tried to keep up good beer taste among my friends, so all gatherings usually have the “side” beer and the “good” beer, and everyone pitches in their own choices. This has become a lot easier with the recent expansion of 6-pack sales, although it’s still cheaper to get sixers over the border — our silly liquor laws, forcing us to run booze over state lines like the damn Dukes of Hazzard.
There are huge communities around beer, from our local tasting and brewing clubs to massive online review databases like BeerAdvocate. Recently, I was talking to a friend from the college days, and he asked if I liked sampling microbrews. I told him clearly all that cheap beer rotted his brain, because I used to try to get my heathen friends into drinking better beer back in the day. As a fellow nerd who had decided to pay more attention to his likes and dislikes, he told me he had begun a spreadsheet of tasting notes.
I checked it out, and it was a simple Google spreadsheet — nothing fancy, but a good idea. I didn’t think much of it, and since I hadn’t sampled any new brews lately, I kind of forgot about it. A few weeks later, he sent me a note: “You’re slacking. I ran a report, and you’re last with zero reviews.” I was confused, so I loaded up the spreadsheet. It was no longer a spreadsheet. Well, technically it was, but it was one of the craziest looking spreadsheets I’ve ever seen, rivaling the ones I’ve seen our accounting department work with.
He’s got at least 100 different entries from about four or five different friends, complete with brewer, ABV, tasting notes and scoring. He tells me he eventually plans to cross-reference the whole thing with BeerAdvocate. It is an impressive dedication to beer. And evidence that his parties are way more fun than mine right now.
So, this weekend I’ll be making the mercifully short walk from my house to the Scranton Cultural Center to immerse myself (hopefully only figuratively) in some of the best brews our region has to offer. I’ll even try to update the spreadsheet and make my friend jealous that he couldn’t make it down for the fest. Everyone have fun, and be safe!

Step Away from the Keyboard

 TUCKER HOTTES and his pup are ready to hit new-and-improved trails

 

Off to the trails
This is a bit more like it. Seems like this week we’ve finally started to shake off the shackles of winter, and we might be headed into warmer weather for the duration. I can’t really describe how great it felt to have the sun shining down for the first time in what seems like a year. I was stuck moving a pair of couches and several other pieces of furniture this weekend, but last weekend I even got a little time on the Lackawanna to test out my brand new pair of waders.
I’ve had a growing list of things to do “once the weather improves” for months now, not the least of which is getting geared up and taking the dog out for some hiking. It seems like the Parks and Rec department is on the same page. Starting very soon, one of my favorite places for a quick hike will be getting an upgrade. Scranton has received a $500,000 state grant to make improvements throughout Nay Aug Park, including upgrades to hiking trails like markings and trailheads. Drainage will also be fixed up (hopefully eliminating the canyons in the access road to the Kanjorski bridge). I’ve covered most of the trails throughout the park many times with my intrepid canine companion, and they can certainly stand to have a little TLC. For one, many spots are overgrown and there are a few parts rendered nearly impassable by felled trees over the last couple years. Widening the trails and doing some basic maintenance will be a big boost.
Even though I’m looking forward to any improvements to a place I visit so often, part of me deep down is a little disappointed that better trails will lead to more traffic. On one hand, more people means the trails should be kept in better shape. On the other hand, there’s also the potential for more trash (I always wind up carting out a bagful after a hike), as well as general crowding on trails. I don’t mind coming across folks while hiking — after all, it’s everyone’s right to share the trails, and presumably people are being courteous and respectful. It’s not even an issue with the dog, since she’s very good with trail etiquette and sits patiently when we let other people pass.
Sometimes, I just like a little feeling of isolation even in a public place smack in the middle of the city. We’re never alone when we hike in Nay Aug, but on the other side of the gorge and on the eastern portion of the Davis Trail, it’s rare that we run into anyone. With new trailheads and better openings, I doubt that will be the case. Obviously, that’s the point, and I embrace improvements to such a nice property.
But I still feel a little twang of jealousy that we’ll be losing a spot that almost had a secret, insider’s feel to it.
In the end, though, if I had to pick losing that little bit of exclusivity and having the place fall into disrepair, I’ll rejoice over crowded trails any day.

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WEB MASTER TUCKER HOTTES has video games on the brain

 

Let’s talk video games
Here we are, officially in the second quarter of 2013 already. Winter is still trying to cling on, but lengthening days and hints of warmer weather are starting to draw us outside. Still, there’s enough of a chill in the air and plenty of high winds to remind us that many days it’s better to stay inside where it’s warm. In a way, that’s good — it gives us time to attack the backlog of video games that have been piling up over the last few weeks.
We’re coming off the heels of one of the weirdest video game release schedules in recent memory.
Typically, the first quarter of the year is devoid of any good titles. You might get one or two big games that were delayed from the previous blockbuster fall season, but in general the stream of releases is a trickle that starts toward the end of Q1 and doesn’t really start ramping up until Q3 and the end of the summer.
This year, though, is a bit of a flip-flop. With the impending release of new, next-generation consoles this fall, the publishers have been scrambling to get their AAA titles on shelves before people start thinking about trading in their old consoles. As a result, March and April are turning into very expensive months for those who need to have every game on release date.
I’ve been holding off because I simply haven’t had much time to play lately, but I’ve heard plenty of friends lament squeezing all of them in. One of the next big releases, though, will be hard to resist.
Injustice: Gods Among Us mixes up DC Comics characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, various assorted villains, etc.) in a new fighting game from the creators of Mortal Kombat. There’s just something so appealing about having Bane beat the crap out of Aquaman, it’s tough to say no to jumping in and checking that one out. I’m also a sucker for a good fighter, and we all know I love my comics, so it’s like this one was tailor made for nerds like me.
After another few, quieter releases, things will be calming down through the rest of the spring and early summer. The biggest fun will be when the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) rolls around in June, and we’ll finally get a solid look at this fall’s consoles and titles. Things have been quiet on Sony’s end since their PS4 reveal, and Microsoft has remained completely mum on their plans for the Xbox successor.
So, take advantage of some of these cold, windy days if you’re desperately trying to finish off a month’s worth of huge game releases. Soon enough, we’ll all be happy to let the consoles collect dust while we spend time outside in the sun, grilling, starting the concert season, checking out baseball games, or whatever else gets you off the couch. Your video games will still be waiting on the shelf, and the systems will be happy to have a rest after such heavy use.

Step Away from the Keyboard

 When spring weather finally arrives, TUCKER HOTTES will be ready

 

Who’s ready to fish?
It’s spring or something. Lots of people are pissing and moaning about how cold it is, and shaking their fists at the sky when they see a snow flurry, but the reality is we’ve had a few nice days. And regardless of the actual temperature, the days are getting longer and longer. This week, we’ve got something like 20 minutes more sunlight than last week. Heavy jackets or not, as far as I’m concerned that’s progress.
This weekend, snow or shine, I’ll be heading to A&G Outfitters in Dickson City for their annual season kickoff. It’s a good opportunity to get pumped up about fishing, mingle and swap stories and locations with other area anglers, and get the heads up on all the latest gear on the shelves ready to drain your wallet. Last year, I went with no intention of picking anything up, and left with stuff I used all season long and will be bringing out soon. There are a few intrepid fly anglers out there right now, but damn that water is cold and I want no part of it right now. I’m not yet that hardcore.
I’m on the cusp of some major spring cleaning, during which I plan to find a dedicated place for all my fishing gear. Over the past year, my journey into the sport has resulted in a moderately impressive collection of stuff that is right now taking up lots of space in various corners of my house. When I’m looking to sneak a couple hours on the Lackawanna after work, I’m not going to want to run around finding stuff scattered all over, so I need to find a spot where I can house everything for quick access.
Speaking of quick access, another part of my spring cleaning is going to have to involve digging out all the camping gear, checking out what’s in good shape or needs replacing, and re-packing it somewhere
I can grab it on a whim. I’ve already got a stack of tentative camping plans starting as early as April (we call that ass-freezing camping), and on one of the first nice days I’ll be pulling out the pop-up trailer to inspect it after a winter of storage.
My warm-weather prep doesn’t stop with things that take me away from the house, either. Even though it’s seen some limited usage in the past several months, it’s time to dust off the grill and get it ready to be front-and-center on the deck. I have big plans for my outdoor cooking this year, and hope to bring you many grilling escapades — but baby steps first, since I’ve yet to buy my first round of bulk charcoal.
So I’m already deep into my spring thinking, even though I’m still grabbing my jacket when I go outside, and am still witnessing the occasional snow flurry (and I wouldn’t count out one more honest-to-god storm before we’re through). I packed up the ski equipment, pulled out the fishing magazines, started pricing coals, and can’t wait for some outdoor fun. If you’re of the fly fishing persuasion, make sure to stop by the shop in Dickson City on Saturday — doors open at 9 a.m., and I’ll see you there.

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remember your first computer class? WEB MASTER TUCKER HOTTES does

 

Oh, how far we’ve come
Most of us type every day — whether we work at a computer for a living, or are just blasting off e-mails and Facebook updates, we usually click away at a keyboard instead of laboring on a smartphone or tablet touchscreen. I’m not sure what kids learn in school these days, but when I was in middle school we had computer class, which consisted of plopping a bunch of 6th through 8th graders in a room filled with old Apple IIGS machines and running Oregon Trail. But there was a price for those blissful weekly adventures with dysentery and shooting 800 pounds of meat but only carrying back 20 pounds while killing off family members left and right at the grueling pace I’d set (and always caulking and floating, never fording). Occasionally, we were expected to suffer through a typing program and learn about things like the “home row” and only hitting shift with your pinkies.
Naturally, being an ornery old bastard even back then, I essentially refused to let myself learn it. I’d deliberately ignore the lessons, and prove that my two-finger hunt-and-peck was significantly faster than the “real” typing the program was trying to teach. I pulled a similar stunt in 4th grade math when learning the multiplication tables. That turned into a lifelong handicap that’s made the typing a hell of a lot more necessary than I knew at the time.
That old typing tutor program (note: it wasn’t Mavis Beacon or anything famous — our school was way too cheap) must have somehow stuck in the recesses of my mind. As the years wore on and I became nerdier, I started spending more time on the PC IMing friends with early IM clients, using IRC with strangers across the world, and creating rudimentary, hand-coded “blogs” before “blog” was a word.
Gradually, my two-finger typing naturally evolved into something approximating the “correct” way to type, and I’m now a touch-typist with pretty high speed and accuracy marks.
I do spend disproportionately more time typing than most people, so I spend a lot more time thinking about my keyboards. Usually, the keyboard is an afterthought for most people; a peripheral that’s thrown in as the cheapest possible add-on. Sure, some might care if it’s wireless or not, or if a laptop’s keys are too close together, but for the most part people just plop and start typing.
I’ll have none of that. There’s been a great movement over the last few years to bring back mechanical keyboards. Also known as “clicky” keyboards. Laptops and the vast majority of modern desktop keyboards use a “membrane” — a little switch on top of a rubber bubble, that when pressed down completes a circuit and sends the keypress. Mechanical keyboards use other mechanisms, like springs, to do the same thing. The difference seems subtle, but there are big benefits to the mechanical approach. For one, they’re more durable — not that most people care. Mechanical keys also have an earlier “activation point,” which means you don’t technically have to press the key all the way down — just far enough to register the keypress. For quick typists, this can make a real difference as you can use a softer and lighter touch and gain speed. Mechanical keyboards also just sound and feel better, and make typing a more enjoyable experience.
All that goodness comes at a price, of course, and lower end mechanical keyboards can cost as much as whole wireless keyboard/mouse combos. Mine has individually backlit keys (for typing in the dark, of course), which jacks up the price even more. But for someone who spends so much time creating so many words per minute, how can I put a price tag on making it a better experience?

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WEB MASTER TUCKER HOTTES longs for the good old days of customer service

 

Tech companies should pay more attention to nerds
Companies in the tech world have always leaned toward “we know what’s best for our customers,” and in many ways that line of thinking has helped advance technology. Apple practically built its empire on that mantra. But recently, a few incidents have made me wonder if a bit more focus on the consumer might not be a bad idea.
The first thing is a widespread outcry from nerds worldwide over the botched release of the super anticipated modern remake of the venerable classic SimCity. The traditionally single-player game was modified to fully incorporate online play in the form of “regions” — areas where friends can set up cities together and share resources and view each other’s cities live. Only the publisher Electronic Arts made the decision to require players to sign in to play —  like Blizzard and Diablo III last summer.
Also, just like Blizzard and Diablo III, the minute the game’s release date hit and millions of people tried to get online, the servers went down and massive numbers of people were left with empty wallets and no game to play. Unlike last summer’s debacle, however, EA’s SimCity troubles extended from hours into days into a full week later. At press time, although many people reported improvement in getting online, there were still complaints. Over the course of that time, EA alternated between patting themselves on the back for the popularity of the game and dead silence.
Slowly, the number of servers ballooned from four to more than a dozen, but the damage was already done in many customers’ eyes. Now, there are conflicting reports on whether or not the game technically could support an ‘offline’ mode, and finger-pointing is making people dizzy. In an “our bad” move reminiscent of Sony when their PlayStation Network was compromised, EA has offered a free game to anyone who purchased the game prior to March 18. Small consolation to many, but at least they’re admitting to the screw-up.
In other PC software “what were they thinking,” I’ve had my first second-hand tales of Microsoft’s
Windows 8 from two people who just got new computers. In an effort to unify their mobile, tablet, and desktop operating systems, MS created the “Metro” interface that consists of all those colorful tiles you’ve been seeing in the advertising. They’ve also hidden the traditional Windows desktop that many of us rely on daily. I knew these things.
What I didn’t know was that they completely removed the ‘Start’ menu, obfuscating nearly all of the things that used to take two clicks to access: applications, settings, access to files, shut down, etc.
There’s no way to get it back without third-party software, which defeats the whole point of running a clean PC. There are numerous new multi-click, obscure ways to access all those things (eventually, if you can find them), but unlike almost every other iteration of Windows, features that have been taken away can’t be enabled in settings.
My one friend decided to hack and customize as much as he could to make it act more like “old” Windows via scripts and third-party software. My other friend resorted to learning keyboard shortcuts and re-learning how to use an OS that held (more or less) its basic form for nearly 20 years.
All this head-scratching lately makes me wonder if companies need to take a step back and remember how to be consumer-focused.