Now what?

As I mentioned in the introductory post for this blog, I’m really not sure what direction I should go.  There seem to be several options:

  • I’ve had Python suggested as a good beginner’s language.
  • Visual Basic seems logical given my past history with BASIC (though it is apparently quite different from the 8-bit 80’s era language I grew up with).
  • JavaScript would be good as it’s something I could put into immediate use at my full-time job.  Though it’s more of a scripting language, as the name would suggest.
  • Objective-C might make sense, as I’m interested in developing mobile apps, and I currently own an iPhone.  Most iPhone apps make heavy use of Objective C.

I’ve decided (at least for the moment) to start with C++, for a number of reasons:

  • It is one of the most popular programming languages created.  I’d wager that the majority of commercial applications created over the past 10-20 years have been done in C++
  • From what I have gathered, it is not tolerant of sloppy coding techniques.
  • It is hard to learn.  I realize this sounds backwards for a beginner’s blog, but I figure if you can get a handle on one of the harder languages, the easier ones will be that much simpler.

I will probably jump around between different languages as my whims dictate, but for the moment I’m going with C++.

Beginning C++ Through Game Programming

So now that a language has been determined, the next step is to determine how to actually learn the language.

Late last year, I purchased Beginning C++ Through Game Programming, Second Edition* by Mike Dawson. He teaches at UCLA, and was the co-designer of Dark Seed, an early 90s horror/adventure game.

I’ve always been interested in writing my own games, and learning programming via writing simple games seems like a logical way to go about it.  From a cursory scanning of the book, it seems that the example games are all text-based – which is fine with me.

I will attempt to work through the book and update the blog on my progress, without simply duplicating the content of the book.  Not sure how I will accomplish that yet, but I suppose we shall see!

(*Apparently there is a revised edition coming soon, Beginning C++ Through Game Programming, Third Edition.)

Tax filing for free

Though April 15th is coming up quickly, many people have not filed their tax returns yet. Every year I’m appalled at how much of my income is taken out to go towards worthless government spending (e.g. “pork”).

On that note:  Does anyone else find it odd that so much attention is being given to the whole AIG bonus controversy?  $130 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the recent stimulus package that was passed, yet it seems to me that even more attention is being given to this comparatively small infraction. If only Congress and the media were so thorough with the entirety of the nearly $1 trillion stimulus bill.

Don’t get me wrong – these bonuses represent more money than any one of us will see in our lifetimes, but to put it into perspective:  Imagine you worked long and hard to earn $10,000.  If you somehow lost just one of those dollars, would you expend the same amount of effort to find that last dollar as you did to earn the initial $10,000?

I’m no financial genius (or are I?), and I’m not disputing that it’s pretty lousy how our hard-earned tax money is going towards these ridiculous bonuses so soon after AIG begged to be saved by the government; but the amount of coverage given this issue by the media and congress seems… disproportionate.

OK, back to your previously scheduled programming:

On top of the thousands of dollars taken out of our paychecks throughout the year (and potentially having to write another check to make up the difference), the last little twist of the knife is having to pay to have your tax return prepared – via an accountant or with tax software. The good news is that there’s a way to do it for free.

Short Answer:

TaxACT – http://www.taxact.com

Long Answer:

Doing your own taxes can be scary, particularly if you have a lot of income sources or investments.  The good news is today’s various tax software packages do a good job of walking you through the return and asking pertinent questions, taking a lot of the uncertainty out of the process.

The two primarily well-known tax preparation packages are H&R Block’s TaxCut and Intuit’s TurboTax.  In the past, you had to purchase the software up front, and then use it to prepare your return.  More recently, both services have been made available online:

Unless your tax return is a very simple one (only a W-2, for example), you have to pay for their upgraded services in order to file. But the good news is that you can go through the entire process first for free, regardless of the complexity of your return.  You don’t pay until you file.

There is a third online filing service, TaxACT.  And they let you file for free  – sounds pretty good, right?  It is.

So why bother even bringing up TaxCut and TurboTax?  Because the ability to doublecheck your work is always a good thing, especially when money or a potential IRS audit is on the line.

For example, last year I was working on my tax return with TaxCut.  As I approached the final stages, TaxCut said I owed much more than I anticipated.  So I went to the TurboTax website, entered all my information there, and realized that I had neglected to enter my state sales tax deductions – while the option was there in TaxCut, it wasn’t as obvious as it was in TurboTax.

I eventually found the appropriate section in TaxCut, adjusted my numbers and all was well. Being able to doublecheck my work saved me several hundred dollars.

I still had to pay $40 to file my tax return though.  $40 isn’t going to send us into crippling poverty, but it will pay for a decent meal out.

This year I went through the entire process with both TaxCut and TurboTax’s web-based programs, checking my work with each program, then did my actual filing with TaxACT.  So I was able to have another set of eyes look over my return, if you will, and it didn’t cost me a cent to file.

Pretty good deal, if you ask me.

Windows Home Server: A Series of Unfortunate Events

I have been using Windows Home Server since the public Beta was released a year ago. I *want* to love it, but there are just too many quirks at the moment (many of which are due to faulty hardware on my build). But more severe is the data corruption issue that the WHS team announced back in January. Anandtech has an article on the nuts and bolts of this particular problem

When it rains, it pours, and sometimes you get hit by lightning too which will really ruin your day.

Since very late last year, Microsoft has been facing an issue with Windows Home Server where under certain conditions files on a server’s shares could become corrupt. The severity of the situation is pretty immense and the situation straightforward: nothing should be getting corrupt on a file server, otherwise it’s a pretty useless file server. Since the initial report Microsoft has been attempting to reproduce the issue in order to fix it, and finally this week they have announced that they have fully identified the problem, its causes, and what needs to be done to fix it.

It just about couldn’t get any worse.

Amazon’s MP3 store brings more DRM-free music at lower prices than iTunes Store

Found at Ars Technica:

Amazon has launched a public beta of its long-anticipated digital music download store, offering more than 2 million songs as MP3 files. Those who have been paying attention to the digital music business can probably guess what’s included: tracks from EMI and Universal Music Group, music from another 20,000 independent labels, and $0.99 downloads…

While download stores might have gotten away with encoding music at a 128kbps constant bit rate a year or two ago, that’s not going to fly today, and Amazon knows it. Most tracks are variable bit rate 256kbps MP3 files, though the occasional track is encoded at constant bit rates. Large, high-quality album art comes embedded in each file…

The default song price is $0.99 per track, but the top 100 songs are only $0.89 apiece, and the top 100 albums go for $8.99….

The prices are still a bit too high for me to give up physical CDs anytime soon, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.  Apple has made some steps in the right direction with their “iTunes Plus” program, but Amazon’s got the better deal right now:

  • Cheaper tracks ($0.89/0.99 vs $1.29)
  • MP3 vs. AAC (More compatible, virtually identical quality)
  • No need to use another application (i.e. iTunes) to download

It will be interesting to see where this goes – more competition is good, and Amazon’s definitely a credible competitor.

[Link: ArsTechnica.com]

New iPod lineup

Looks like Apple has pulled out all the stops with their latest refresh to the iPod line. FatPod Nanos with video capability, touchscreen iPods, and a 160GB “iPod Classic” (my personal objet d’desire). They also mentioned something about ringtones for the iPhone, but I find them incredibly annoying, so the less said, the better.

The iPod Touch apparently has wifi capability, so you can browse the web and purchase songs directly from the iTunes Music Store.

And a Starbucks/Apple partnership? Wow – that borders on self-parody there, Steve-o.

A Musical Experiment

Anyone who’s known me for a few years is aware that I enjoy playing music. For a while there I defined myself as a musician first and foremost. Over the past couple of years though, my guitars have been gathering dust, which is depressing to say the least.

Today I ran across a video of Jonathan Coulton performing “Re: your brains” – a ballad about zombies – at the Penny Arcade Expo this year (see video below). While the video is hilarious, what got me thinking was his “Thing a Week” project – basically, he recorded a new song every week and made the songs available for free on his site. He described it as an attempt to keep the creative juices flowing, which is exactly what I’m lacking at the moment.

So, I thought to myself – why not try the same thing? I don’t think I’m up to recording a song per week, but I could at least *write* a song a week. It doesn’t have to be long, it doesn’t have to be good – it just has to be a song.

We’ll see how it goes – starting Monday 🙂