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Fun family card games to help pass the time

As many of us are under stay at home orders, and schools are canceled (or on partial-day remote learning), it can be a challenge keeping the kids entertained without relying on electronic devices all the time. I thought I’d share three of our favorite card games, which are playable for anyone from kids of roughly middle school age up through adults.

Each can be played with as few as three people (the max varies by game), and all are relatively simple to learn but hard to master, and don’t take a huge amount of time to play. The first two are packaged games (from the same company), while the third simply requires two decks of cards.

Five Crowns

Five Crowns is a rummy-style card game, where the objective is to score the fewest points possible. The first hand is three cards per player, with threes wild (plus jokers, which are always wild). Players need to build either straights or of-a-kind collections, consisting of at least three cards. Each turn, you can either draw one card from the discard pile, or from the top of the deck; at the end of you turn, you must discard (including when you go out). The objective is to go out by playing all the cards in your hand. So for the first hand, it’s pretty simple.

Once one player goes out, the others put down what minimum three-card groupings they can, then have to add up the value of remaining cards, and that becomes their score for the round. The second round is four cards, and fours are wild; then five with fives wild, etc., all the way up to 13 cards with Kings being wild.

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Watch two of the Star Wars Trilogy movies in 4K

Hot on the heels of my weekend post about Harmy’s Despecialized Editions of the original Star Wars Trilogy movies, Six Colors maven and all-around good guy (and my ex-boss) Jason Snell pointed me to something I’d previously only seen briefly referenced in a few spots: Project 4K77.

Project 4K77 is, as you might guess from the name, a 4K version of the 1977 Star Wars movie. The group has also completed Project 4K83 (Return of the Jedi), and is now working on Project 4K80 (The Empire Strikes Back).

What’s really amazing about the 4K77 project is that it is not an upscale of lower-resolution footage. Instead, as explained on the 4K77 page…

…97% of project 4K77 is from a single, original 1977 35mm Technicolor release print, scanned at full 4K, cleaned at 4K, and rendered at 4K.

Because this is a scan of the original film, it’s grainier than the Harmy releases—and there may be some actual film effects like scratches visible at times (I haven’t yet watched the full movie, so I’m not sure).

But it is a full 4K, and it’s a very different experience than is Harmy’s version. As an example, here’s the same still as I used in my prior post, but this one was taken from 4K77 (again, click to see the larger version):

Without looking back at the other blog post, it may not be obvious just how different these two versions are…but this composite photo makes it obvious:

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Watch the Star Wars Trilogy movies in their original form

As a child of the 1970s, the original Star Wars trilogy1Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi was—and remains—one of my favorite movie series of all time.

Unfortunately, George Lucas has made it virtually impossible to watch the original unedited versions of the films.2Unedited versions exist on LaserDisc and DVD, but they are low quality transfers. From 1997 onwards, only modified versions have been available—with newly-added CGI effects, deleted scenes that add nothing to the story, changes to sound effects, and even replacement of characters, such as some of those in the cantina in the original Star Wars. He called these releases Special Editions…but to fans of the originals, they weren’t so special.

Enter one Petr Harmy and an army of volunteers. Using multiple sources, Harmy and the others pieced together all three original films, doing away with the edits, correcting colors, upscaling imagery, and replacing sound effects. This 20-minute video explains the process, and contains a number of before-and-after comparison shots.

The end result is something called Harmy’s Star Wars Trilogy Despecialized3Because these versions remove the Special Editions’ changes—get it? Editions: Amazingly high quality versions of the theatrical releases of all three original movies. As a very brief example, here’s one still (click for a much larger version) from Star Wars:

The movies are not at Blu-Ray (1920×1080) resolution, but they’re very well done 720p (1280×720) versions which look amazingly nice even when scaled to fill the screen of my 27″ iMac. And most importantly, all the cruft added on through the years is gone. No bogus CGI. No replaced characters. No weird sound effects. Oh, and (spoiler alert!) Han shoots first.

So how can you get these Despecialized versions for yourself? That’s a bit tricky…

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Add metadata to ripped movies and TV shows

Somewhat regularly, I write about ripping DVDs and Blu-Rays. I tend to prefer physical media and sometimes—especially when buying an older TV series or classic movie—the disc won’t include a digital copy. So I rip the disc—this way for Blu-Rays, or just via HandBrake for DVDs—to create my own digital copy.

Once ripped, the problem is that I have a video file that will play, but that has no useful information about what the video is—no metadata about the cast, production year, or (for TV series) season and episode. If I try to add the movie to the TV app (or iTunes, as on my iMac), it will require some hand editing to wind up in the right category, and it still won’t have any show information.

Enter Subler, a free app to help you “tag” (add metadata to) movies and TV shows. There are probably other apps out there that do this, but Subler works quite well for me, especially for TV shows.

When I rip a TV series, I’ll give the files a filename based on its title and (for TV series) season and episode, like Wings S01E01, or Sports Night S02E04. I then drag and drop the ripped file onto Subler’s dock icon, and it opens a window, showing all the metadata associated with the file; here’s how the window looked after I ripped the first episode of Sports Night:

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Our family’s robotic vacuum overlords are Deebots

If you’re interested in technology (me!), and dislike cleaning (also me!), you’ve probably investigated robot vacuum cleaners. There are tons of models out there, covering a wide range of costs from under $100 to over $1,500. I’m not here to try to tell you which is the best, or even which particular one to buy, but to point out a time-limited sale on the one we chose to buy.

Back in May, we bought an Ecovacs Deebot N79S (Amazon)1This is a referral link; I make a modest commission if you use it. to clean our downstairs hardwood floors. I bought it mainly because it was on sale for a relatively inexpensive (for a robot vacuum) $150, and it received decent reviews on Amazon and on various review sites such as Wirecutter.

It’s not the smartest robot—there’s no ability to save a map or mark off “do not enter” areas. But I’ve found it cleans well, it’s quiet, and the app does what it needs to do to make managing the vacuum about as easy as it can be. It’s got a stated 110 minute battery life, and ours usually runs for at least 90 minutes, going over mainly hardwood with a couple of area rugs.

I noticed today that it’s on sale again on Amazon for about $150—it shows as $170 in the store, but once in the cart, a $17 discount is applied, bringing it down to $153. We’ve been so happy with the first that I just ordered a second one to use upstairs (with two cats in the house, one cannot have enough vacuums).

I’m not sure how long this special price will last, nor if it’s some sort of targeted thing where only certain shoppers get the deal, but if you’re in the market for a decent yet not too costly robot vacuum, we’ve been very happy with ours.

De-distractionate the Touch Bar

Shocking even myself, I’m now the owner of a Touch Bar equipped MacBook Pro—I purchased the entry-level 16″ model last weekend. Why? I’ll save the detailed explanation for an upcoming look at the machine and its performance, but the main goal was to replace two laptops with one.

But just because I now have a Touch Bar-equipped Mac doesn’t mean I suddenly like the Touch Bar. In fact, my feelings about it haven’t changed since I wrote about it two years ago:

The Touch Bar, despite its name, is actually an Eye Bar: It forces your eyes off the screen, down to the Touch Bar, back up to the screen, repeat ad infinitum.

After some hours working with my new MBP, this is definitely a problem—and it’s a problem even when I’m not using the Touch Bar, which is pretty much all the time: I’ve found that the changing images and colors on the Touch Bar grab my eye every time I switch apps…

The camera was focused on the Touch Bar, but when I’m looking at the screen, I see all that activity just below the screen, and it’s really distracting. Thankfully, there’s an easy fix, and one I’d not heard of prior to buying this machine…

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When products play hide-and-seek with serial numbers

I recently bought a set of PowerBeats Pro, which I generally love (more on the headphones in a future post), but today, while trying to register my product with Beats, I ran into a clear example of form trumping function.

To register your Beats, you need the serial number; Beats provides a graphic that shows you where to find it…

Seems simple enough, so I flip open the case…

Umm, where is that serial number?

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Add inelegance to remove heat

At home, our network routing and firewall is handled by an open-source software package called pfSense®; it has a ton of features, and is relatively easy to configure. I built a mini PC (a box roughly 9″ per side) for pfSense, and it’s been running smoothly for over five years1I’ll be writing more about pfSense and my routing PCs in a future post..

While it’s not the world’s loveliest box…ok, so it may be the world’s ugliest box…

…it’s been rock solid since day one. However, it’s aging and its CPU won’t be supported in an upcoming pfSense release, so I decided to replace it. (That way, I’ll have a spare if the new one breaks…at least until that unsupported version of pfSense is released.) Here’s the new box…

That’s a Protectli fanless Firewall Appliance with a quad-core Celeron J3160 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage. And yes, it’s just a bit smaller and more elegant than my old box—the entire thing is roughly the size of my old box’s external cooling fan.

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The high cost of software in the 1980s…

A friend recently sent me a link to a large collection of 1980s computing magazines—there’s some great stuff there, well worth browsing. Perusing the list, I noticed Softline, which I remember reading in our home while growing up. (I was in high school in the early 1980s.)

We were fortunate enough to have an Apple ][ in our home, and I remember reading Softline for their game reviews and ads for currently-released games.

It was those ads that caught my eye as I browsed a few issues. Consider Missile Defense, a fun semi-clone of the arcade game Missile Command. To give you a sense of what games were like at the time, here are a few screenshots from the game (All game images in this article are courtesy of MobyGames, who graciously allow use of up to 20 images without prior permission.)

Stunning graphics, aren’t they?

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A new set of Hubble deep space iMac retina desktops

Back in 2015, I created a set of 5120×2880 deep space desktop images for my then-newish Retina iMac, using images from the Hubble space telescope.

Recently, the Hubble team released the absolutely mind-bogglingly-massive Hubble Legacy Field image

The snapshot, a combination of nearly 7,500 separate Hubble exposures, represents 16 years’ worth of observations. The ambitious endeavor is called the Hubble Legacy Field. The new view contains about 30 times as many galaxies as in the HUDF. The wavelength range stretches from ultraviolet to near-infrared light, capturing all the features of galaxy assembly over time.

The image mosaic presents a wide portrait of the distant universe and contains roughly 265,000 galaxies. They stretch back through 13.3 billion years of time to just 500 million years after the universe’s birth in the big bang.

Despite those staggering figures, this image still represents only a tiny portion of the sky, covering roughly the area taken up by the Moon in the night sky.

I downloaded the 700MB 25,500×25,500 PNG version of the image, and set to work making some new 5120×2880 desktop images. You can read more about the process in an upcoming post, but for now, here are the resulting images…

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