Playhouse Product Testing

We had some friends and their children over for Christmas/Hanukkah dinner, and the playhouses I wrote about last week got some serious product testing.

There were seven adults in the house trying to have some grown-up conversation, and six kids — 1, 3, 4, 5 and two at 8 years old — simultaneously climbing into, out of and around the playhouses.

Total damage:

Eventually the red door came off the cottage, and some wrestling between three of the boys tore part of the lower-front corner of the cottage. Fixed it with some packing tape this morning.

I think some of the parents were appalled by what their kids were doing and I had to repeatedly tell them it was all in good fun. I wanted the kids to do their worst so I could see where the playhouses failed. We were all amazed that they provided as much fun and held together as well as they did.

Best playtesting ever.

Gimme Shelter

I don’t know if other kids are like this, but our girls have demonstrated again and again that an empty box can provide as much engaging play time as the toys that may have come in it. And certainly more fun than the boring mommy and daddy stuff that arrives in the bigger boxes.

Of course, the bigger the box, the bigger the possibilities… which ultimately led to making these playhouses for the kids.

Cardboard houses. Cool.

They were easy to build and I will explain how you can build some, too.

You will need:

  • A box. The bigger, the better.

  • A box cutter or something similar. I like my classic Stanley 199 utility knife. A fresh, sharp blade helps make clean, straight cuts.

  • Glue or tape. I use Gorilla wood glue, which just happens to be made in the USA.

  • A pencil, and maybe a ruler (though you can use a cut-off box end as a straightedge like I did).

  • Paint, if you want.

You could probably get fancier than this and, I don’t know, make curtains or something. I will leave that to you and your therapist to work out.

Building the Playhouse

The steps to build the playhouse are straightforward.

First, secure the flaps on one end of the box. This will be the bottom of the playhouse. If you are starting with a used box, it may already be taped shut, which is fine. Gluing the flaps shut makes the entire structure more secure (which extends the life of the playhouse) and keeps them from flopping about.

If you glue the flaps, give them a few hours to dry. You can “clamp” the flaps together by turning the box bottom side down and placing something heavy like paint cans on them.

Now cut off all four flaps on the other end. This will be the top. I will come back to why I leave the top open in a minute.

If you want to add a roof profile of some sort, this is a good time to cut those bits out. Use your ruler or the edge of a cut-off flap as a straightedge. Learn from my mistakes: do not succumb to the urge to eyeball your cuts. As Norm cautions: “Measure twice, cut once.” It doesn’t need to be perfect, but stupid mistakes lead to frustration, which leads to making this not as much fun as it should be.

Cottage with a simple, sloped roofline.

This is also a good time to plan for your door. Just cutting an open space is one easy option. One of the cut-off end flaps provides a handy template that is big enough for kids up to probably 5 years.

In previous playhouses I have just cut through the top, bottom, and one side of the door, then made a slight score on the other side of the door as a hinge. This is quick and easy, but the top corner of an unreinforced door tends to bend and collapse over time, particularly if you cut in a window.

For this set of playhouses I glued one of the cut-off flaps onto the side of the box to create a much stronger double-layer door. When the glue dried, I cut a window, cut the three edges, then scored the remaining edge on the inside to create a hinge.

If you have problems with the door, do not despair. A little packing tape cures most problems. Worst case scenario: just cut out the door and go without.

Windows can be cut out either before or after painting. I like to carefully map out the first window, then use the cut-out piece as a template for the other windows. One on each side lets in plenty of air and light. Just be careful of cutting out so much that the box becomes weakened.

To Paint or Not to Paint?

That choice is really up to you. I did not paint our first few attempts and the kids were perfectly happy. Eventually they decorated the boxes themselves with crayons and tempera paints.

This time I had some leftover interior primer — the 5 gallon bucket seemed like such a good idea — and used it as a neutral base. A roller makes this go on fast. Do not apply the paint too thick, though, because the moisture may warp the cardboard. On the other hand, I think the dry paint gives the box a little added rigidity. Your mileage may vary.

Let the paint dry thoroughly in a well-ventilated area. Then, you can add any decoration you like with whatever paint you have around the house. I raided the kids’ tempera paint supplies, mixing colors as needed. (That greenish castle door was an ill-advised attempt to make brown. Should have looked it up, first.) Again, rollers are handy for large areas. Don’t bother putting the paint on too thick. It’s not a Hollywood set, after all.

Towers. Parapets. Painted stonework. Castle!

And that is it. I would like to get some carpet squares to put in the boxes eventually. That is on the roadmap for vNext.

About the Open Top

Earlier I mentioned cutting the top off the box. We did not do this on our first attempt years ago, but here are a few reasons why I do so now:

  • Ventilation. An enclosed box, even with a few side windows, can get hot and stuffy inside. Plus, some boxes and paints outgas a bit, which can’t be good for the kids. Top off equals cool, fresh air.

  • Easy access. The open top makes it much, much easier to retrieve toys and children as well as cleaning out any messes.

  • Safety. We can always see what’s going on with the open top. And if a rambunctious child tips the box over — it happens more often than you would think — the open top allows you to get in or the child to crawl out easily. One enclosed box tipped over on the door will convince you of the wisdom here.

I have tried making A-frame roof structures over the top, leaving the gable ends open, but never figured out a method appropriate in effort to a disposable cardboard playhouse. The kids don’t seem to care, so I haven’t revisited the problem.

Reuse and Recycle

After our last two moves we ended up with, of course, a good selection of large moving boxes from which to build playhouses. The large wardrobe and appliance boxes are best. But not all boxes are created equal.

You don’t want boxes that are too beaten up because they lose structural rigidity pretty quickly.

They also get dirty in transit, and it is not easy to wipe down a box to clean it up. Paint does help trap and hide dirt. Make sure to check the inside of the box for dirt, oils, smelly smells and bugs.

Boxes that have been soggy are poor choices. They are already starting to fall apart and I would not bother. I am also sensitive to mold and mildew, and most boxes that have been in storage for a few months will have picked up some fungus. Again, best to avoid these. You may, however, have better luck in a very dry climate.

For the set shown here we picked up new wardrobe boxes from a nearby big-box home improvement center for about $10 apiece.

Depending on your tolerance for chaos and falling-apart toys, as well as the mayhem created by your lovely children, these boxes will last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. When the door breaks, cut it off. When a corner rips, tape it up. When the whole thing starts to warp, bend and fall apart, please recycle.

Then build a new one.

A Sim Racing Primer (2004 edition)

Back in 2004 I wrote this overview of the PC sim racing scene for my local BMW club newsletter. It’s very dated now — few, if any, of these games are even available, much less worth using. However, you might find it an interesting snapshot of the times and an indicator of how quickly things change in the gaming industry.

For context, I started sim racing in 1999 with Grand Prix 2. By 2001 I’d discovered Grand Prix Legends and a year later attended my first real-life track day.

Now, more than a decade later, I have a bit more experience with performance driving, both online and off, and the PC sim racing world has changed immensely. I’ll try to write that story soon. In the meantime, here’s the situation as I saw it back in 2004. (I’ve edited, where appropriate, to include currently relevant links.)

Now that winter is upon us and the track season is over, where does a true racing nut go for that much-needed fix of oil and adrenalin? Some may immerse themselves in preparing mind and machinery for next season. Others may head off to warmer parts of the country. But what if you could satisfy that desire to drive at the limits without leaving home… without even taking off your slippers?

Racing simulations might just provide the substitute you’ve been seeking for real track action, whether you’re waiting for spring to get the car back out on the grid, or you just can’t muster the time or budget for the real thing.

You may be thinking, there’s no way a console game can give the feeling of a real track experience. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. While racing simulations, or “sims”, are just computer games with cars, they are not like the games you’re accustomed to seeing on the consoles, or even the “arcade” racers like the Electronic Arts Need for Speed series. The best sim racers have sophisticated physics engines based on real-world performance data. Many provide extensive car setup options, creating a predictable and realistic effect on where the car goes and how well it gets there.

These are good days for sim racing. There are more high-quality racing games available market than ever before, and the internet communities that have grown up around these games provide something for everyone, whether it’s joining an online league, downloading (or creating) new tracks, or just talking about cars with other car nuts. So let’s take a look at the best of the current sim racers....

NASCAR Racing 2003

The NASCAR Racing series, created by Papyrus Racing Games, has long been considered the pinnacle of racing sims, providing realistic driving dynamics, beautiful visuals, and setting the benchmark for online racing. The latest version, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, was created with specific technical input from Jasper Motorsports and Goodyear so that car setup, tire wear, and driving style have the same performance effects in the game as they would in real life.

NASCAR Racing 2003 provides for private testing sessions as well as racing against computer-controlled fields, but the multiplayer racing features are where this sim really shines. The game supports fields of over 40 human opponents, either through a local network or online servers. As you racers know, there’s nothing quite like wheel-to-wheel competition with error-prone, unpredictable, real-life folks to get the adrenalin pumping. But in this case you don’t have to pay for fixing a wrecked car.

Admittedly, Winston… I mean Nextel Cup racing isn’t for everyone. And here’s where the NASCAR Racing story gets interesting: Papyrus recently released a patch that, among other things, adds three additional physics models in the game. These include physics for the NASCAR Busch and Craftsman Truck series [edit: you’d know these as the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series now.], as well a pseudo Trans-Am series. All of these are somewhat limited by the spec-racing nature of NASCAR so, within a series, all of the cars use a single physics model. But each series provides unique and challenging handling characteristics, and the common physics between cars within a given series puts more focus on setup, strategy, and driving skill.

Project Wildfire is a group of artists and developers — many former or current Papyrus staff members — that is creating modifications, or “mods,” that make the Busch, CTS, IROC (based on the Busch physics), and Trans-Am series available to players within NASCAR Racing 2003. This includes the car models, tracks, car paint jobs, and other bits needed to run a realistic version of the series. The Busch, CTS, and IROC mods are complete and can be downloaded from the Project Wildfire web site. A beta version of the Trans-Am series mod is available, unlocking the physics, but still using the Cup car bodies and sounds.

Another group, supported by The US Pits sim racing community, has released a beta version of their Trans-Am mod for NASCAR Racing 2003. The mod is called The Pits Touring Car Challenge (TPTCC). The current version includes car models for Corvettes and Mustangs only. However, some enterprising souls have devised remarkably convincing Team PTG M3 GTR paint schemes for the Mustang, so you can compete as Bill Auberlen, Boris Said, or Hans Stuck.

The combination of graphics, physics, and multiplayer support make the Trans-Am mod for NASCAR Racing 2003 probably the best sim racing experience currently available.

F1 Challenge ‘99-‘02

The Formula One simulations from EA Sports have been getting better and better, and F1 Challenge is probably the best modern F1 driving experience most of us will ever get. This version is actually the end of the road for EA’s F1 sims — Sony recently negotiated an exclusive license to F1 video games and they pretty much pulled out all the stops.

In F1 Challenge, you can sit in for any driver from any team in the series between 1999 and 2002. Obviously that means you can drive a Williams BMW as Ralf, Juan Pablo, or Jensen, but you can also drive a McLaren, Ferrari, Arrows, or Prost if the spirits move you to do so. Changes in chassis, engines, and liveries are recreated for each year, as are changes to the circuits such as revisions to the Rettifilo Tribune chicane at Monza.

Appropriate to the technical sophistication of the series, F1 Challenge offers a dizzying array of chassis-tuning options and telemetry data. If you’ve always wanted to be a grand prix race engineer, here’s your chance. Likewise, there are a bewildering variety of controls to master within the cockpit, so keep the manual within grasp for your first few test sessions. F1 Challenge offers online racing against human opponents as well, but supports fewer online players than NASCAR Racing 2003.

One element that sets F1 Challenge apart from other racing sims is its ability to be customized. As a result, there are a wide range of mods available based on EA’s F1 sims. Historic Touring Car Championship and Aussie V8 Supercars [edit: now an add-on for rFactor.] are currently under development, and a beta version of the V8 Supercars is available.

Bimmer fans can choose from M3 Challenge, BMW World Series, and European Touring Car Championship. Of the three, the ETCC mod is the most polished and interesting. It includes most of the teams and cars driven in this exciting, hotly contested series, and really seems to capture the high-strung character of these cars. The developers also provide many of the tracks run during the ETCC season that aren’t already included in F1 Challenge.

Grand Prix Legends

Long considered the king of racing simulations, Grand Prix Legends recreates glory and danger the 1967 Formula One season — the second year of the 3-liter formula and the first year for Ford’s legendary Cosworth DFV engine. GPL, as it’s known to the initiated, was released by Papyrus back in 1998 and sold poorly due to its steep learning curve and high system requirements.

The cars are very light, very powerful, and run very hard, unforgiving tires. Little wonder few of the legendary drivers from that era survived. GPL features separate physics for each of the seven chassis included in the game: Brabham, BRM, Cooper, Ferrari, Honda, Lotus, and the beautiful AAR Eagle. Each has quirks derived from its real-life performances, meaning the Ferrari sounds wonderful, the Honda and Eagle are delicate, and the Lotus is wicked fast.

In the five years since its release, the game has developed a cult following of amazing proportions. There are photorealistic graphical updates for the cars and tracks, and hundreds of additional tracks have been created by the talented editing community. Since GPL includes an early version of the multiplayer features seen in the NASCAR Racing series, you can race online with up to 20 people through leagues or the popular WinVROC utility. An active community of GPL enthusiasts and extensive links to GPL add-ons and utilities can be found at Race Sim Central.

Live For Speed

Live for Speed is something of an anomaly among racing sims, as it’s being developed and distributed by a small group of independent coders. The game isn’t available in stores. Rather, you download the software and purchase a license from team’s Web site. A free demo is available as well.

Unusual distribution aside, this may be the model for racing sims of the future. Live For Speed may not be quite as polished in some areas as other titles. It also includes a rather funky selection of cars, leaning toward affordable European compacts rather than race-bred supercars. But the chassis dynamics are some of the best available and the game simulates the impression of speed, tire scrub, and body roll in a very believable manner. In addition, Live For Speed provides efficiently designed online racing functionality, though multiplayer grids are limited to 12 cars in the current version.

Rally Trophy

Worthy of mention due to its unique subject matter, Rally Trophy simulates — in very broad strokes — stage rallying in the ‘60s and ‘70s. You can drive classic cars such as the Ford Cortina and Escort, Lancia Fulvia and Stratos, Volvo Amazon, and Opel Kadett. The stages are a bit short, but it’s quite challenging to throw these softly sprung cars around, and each car has its unique quirks.

Half-Price Books seems to have bought up a supply of Rally Trophy and at press time was blowing them out for around $8. You can pick up some excellent updates, including new cars and stages, from No Grip Racing.

Zundfolge, February 2004.

Coder Interviews at the Code Project

I’ve been working with software developers for a long time now, and one thing I learned along the way is that coders are a diverse bunch. That’s one reason why it has been fun and entertaining to launch our A Coder Interview With… series of interviews at the Code Project. We started the series in August 2011 and have been posting a new interview more or less weekly since then.

The big idea behind these interviews is share the stories of working developers who are actively involved in larger coding community — whether that’s the Code Project in particular, open-source projects, or just folks who actively share their knowledge and enthusiasm about programming.

I’d like to acknowledge that The Setup provided much inspiration for this project. I really enjoy the consistent, concise format of these interviews. For Code Project we chose to use a similar set question format, but expand the topic to discuss topics like languages and frameworks of interest, how they learned to program, what advice they’d give to up-and-coming programmers and what they really despise in a codebase.

I heartily recommend reading through these interviews to get a good idea of what tools and techniques working developers are actively using today and the new technologies they’re embracing for tomorrow.

By the way, here are some of our most popular interviews so far:

Chris Maunder, co-founder of The Code Project.

Dave Ward, better known to many of his readers and followers as Encosia.

Sacha Barber, one of The Code Project’s most famous and most prolific members.

John D. Cook of the fascinating blog, The Endeavour.

Phil Haack, former ASP.NET team member, now a Githubber.

There are many other interesting interviews, and we keep adding more. For a taste of the fascinating folks we talk to check out:

Iris Classon, whose 18-month journey from newbie to pro-coder is a true inspiration.

Khaled S. Ali, an actual rocket scientist: he writes the code that controls the Mars rovers.

More are on the way. Stay tuned.

Reading List

Tl;dr version: I started keeping a reading list and decided to post it here for your edification.

Longer version: For most of my life I’ve been a voracious reader. And it’s been great making a career out of three things I really enjoy: reading, writing and computers.

However, when I became a full-time editor, my reading habits changed significantly. I can’t say that I stopped reading because, let’s face it, an editor reads all day as part of the job description. And that’s fine. Even now, I spend much of my day scouring the news and RSS feeds and Twitter for great stories about technology, programmers and the magic they do (plus hippie politics and a few other esoteric topics).

But all that reading during the day (and often into the evening) meant I had little enthusiasm left for pleasure reading in the evening. Though I hadn’t given up altogether. My daughter, wife and I read the Harry Potter series together during 2010 and the beginning of 2011. That got the fire burning again…

When we moved earlier this year, we gave up cable TV and gained a working fireplace. On top of that, my current work involves a bit more writing — excellent alternative exercise for the mind. We have a fantastic independent book store just a few blocks away, too. All that lends itself to more time and interest in evening (and lunchtime, and…) reading.

If figured at least one book a month would be a good target and decided that keeping a journal of my reading would be a good idea track my progress. So far I’ve achieved a bit better than that book-a-month goal. Better yet, I’ve read some great books so far and have a nice queue of books on the shelf for the winter.

So if you’d like to follow along with my reading, check out the reading list page from time to time. I’ll do my best to keep it up to date.

CSS3 Color and Opacity

The CSS3 Color Module much more solid than the other CSS3 proposals and experimental features. In fact, as of June 2011, it’s an official W3C Recommendation. New CSS3 Color features include HSL color specifications in addition to traditional hex and RGB values, as well as the ability to use opacity and gradients.

As a primer for using these new color features, I wrote an article over at The Code Project called CSS3 for Beginners: Color and Opacity. This should get you started. If you find the article helpful, please vote it up and share your thoughts in the article comments.

10 Westerns

Because all the cool kids are doing it, here’s my list of great Westerns:

  • High Noon
  • Little Big Man
  • The Outlaw Josie Wales
  • The Long Riders
  • Unforgiven
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  • The Searchers
  • Bad Day at Black Rock
  • Bronco Billy
  • Jeremiah Johnson

Apparently I like movies about loners. Not terribly surprising.

I also now have a great, new list of movies to check out thanks to the top-ten lists from Jim Coudal, John Gruber and Gary Hustwit.

CSS Box Model Basics

A basic - but often misunderstood - feature of CSS styling is something called the box model, which defines the rectangular space around an element by means of border, margin and padding settings. It’s really very simple, but a combination of poor nomenclature and some subtle rendering rules confuse folks who are new to CSS.

To help you get up to speed with the box model, I wrote an article over at The Code Project called CSS Basics: The Box Model, Margin and Padding. Please check it out and, if you find it helpful, vote it up. I hope you learn something useful.

Cross-platform Note Sync with Dropbox

Update: The information here is still valid, and I’ve added some updates to keep it current. For the latest developments, see Crossplatform Text Editing in 2013.

Say you regularly use several different computers and want to make sure any notes or simple documents are always saved and synced between all your systems — between work at home, a desktop and a notebook, a Mac and a PC and even on your iPhone or iPad. Turns out it’s pretty simple to sync notes between platforms. And if you choose note-taking apps with a bit of forethought, it’s pretty simple to have an always up-to-date store of your notes wherever you go.

That you can sync textual notes — or any documents for that matter — between computers is no secret. There are quite a few apps that let you do this including Dropbox, Live Sync, SugarSync and no doubt others. There are also a few applications that specialize in syncing notes and other specific document types across platforms. I’ll get to that in more detail later.

I’ve used all of the above-named sync solutions over the years with generally good results. Beyond the broader sync tool, though, what I specifically wanted was a platform-agnostic set of tools for taking notes and creating simple documents in such a way that the files would be accessible and editable at any of my current computing devices, which include a desktop running Windows 7, a MacBook Pro, an iPad and an iPhone.

Here’s the simple solution I’m using.

I should start out with the disclaimer that this method applies only to plain ASCII text notes. It’s great for platform-agnostic writing, light coding, and basic HTML markup. If you need to sync bookmarks, images, documents and so on you might be better off with something like Evernote, Goodreader or SugarSync. I’m personally more interested in lightweight, single-purpose apps, though, and find Dropbox sync between dedicated apps more useful.

Having decided that I just want to sync notes, the next step is deciding whether to use Simplenote or Dropbox as your sync platform. They don’t play all that well together, apparently, but choosing on or the other is not a forever decision. Most of the note-taking apps support both methods and you can switch if necessary. There’s no lock-in.

I chose the Dropbox route because I am already using it to sync other files. I didn’t want to add a separate sync platform to the mix, nor did I want to limit my note-taking app choices to those that use Simplenote sync.

The note-taking apps are open source for the most part so you have several choices. The defining and common element of these apps is that they can save your notes as individual text files in a shared folder.

Mac: Notational Velocity or one of its forks. I’m using nvALT 2.0.

Windows: I’m using ResophNotes, another fork of the NV code.

iOS: As noted, you can sync with Simplenote, and NV also supports Dropbox sync with PlainText, Elements, iA Writer, and other iOS apps. I’m using both PlainText and Elements.

Setup is simple:

  1. Install Dropbox on all your devices, ResophNotes on Windows, and NV fork of choice on your Mac.

  2. Create a folder in Dropbox that will hold all the text files for your notes. I think most apps will allow any root-level folder, but Elements currently requires an Elements folder. If you’re considering Elements as an editor (it’s pretty nice for the price), you may want to go with that as a default. Elements creates this itself when you run it the first time, so that was my first step. check the documentation. As of version 2.0.1, Elements now lets you set the folder.

  3. In ResophNotes, click Options, then go to the Storage tab. Select “Plain Text File (.txt)” as your storage type. Point it at your Elements folder (or equivalent) for the file directory. In my case it was C:UserstpdorseyDocumentsMy DropboxElements.

  4. In NV, open Preferences and go to the Notes tab. Under Storage, set it to store and read notes as plain text files. Set “Read notes from folder:” to the appropriate folder in Dropbox, in my case Elements.

Done! Now any notes you create on any of your devices will be saved to DropboxElements and will be sync’d in real time to all other devices. (Technically the iOS apps seem to access the web store on demand, but that detail in transparent in execution.

To get some additional formatting and the ability to create HTML markup from your notes, check out John Gruber’s Markdown formatting. There’s a great introduction to using Markdown on the Practically Efficient blog. These are Mac demos, but it works the same in any Markdown-enabled editor, including ResophNotes.

In practice, using a sync’d note-taking system like this is simple to set up, simple to use and you never need to commit to a particular application, platform or workflow. If you decide this just doesn’t work for you, any text files you’ve created will still be saved in Dropbox, ready to use in another application. And if you switch machines — or platforms — the files are all there as soon as you’ve set up Dropbox.

Full disclosure: some of the links on this page are Apple affiliate links and I could receive a payment from Apple for any purchases you make during a shopping session initiated via these links.

10 Great Features in 10 Different OSes

If you were making the ultimate operating system, what features would you choose? I’ve been fortunate to use a pretty wide range of OSes over the years — some by choice, others by necessity. Each OS has some nugget that we can enjoy, learn from and build on.

So here, in no particular order, are 10 different features I love in 10 different OSes (

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