I like… Apollo Up!

Carrying on from lasts week’s post. The last.fm group is up and running and even has a few members. I’ve started a thread where we can put in our recommendations for music others may not have heard. In the interests of saving me from thinking of something new to post, I have stolen my first recommendation from there to put here…

Apollo Up! are a fairly straight forward rock trio. To be honest, there is nothing particularly imaginative or inventive about their music but I have loved it ever since I first heard Walking The Plank when it was featured on some mp3 blog.

The music is on the heavier side but still firmly in the middle of a “Rock” genre. No metal influence, very little punk influence and no electronics. Lead singer Jay Leo Phillips has a voice very reminiscent of Elvis Costello (only harder) and it was that suggestion that made me want to listen in the first place.

They have their own band page where you will find a selection of tracks from their albums to download to get you started. There are also some on last.fm to stream.

If you like them enough to want to spend some money on them, their albums are available on Amie Street and are still very cheap there (cheap as in just over $5 would get you everything!).

To get you started, my favourite track is “The Job’s A Game” (a short but powerful song, not streamed or free I’m afraid) but of the free downloads, check out “Walking The Plank” and “Guilty Fever”.

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Eclectic Hottest 100

For years I used to get upset at the awful repetition you would get listening to commercial radio. In my early 20s I spent a bit of time listening to Triple J (that’s a public “alternative” radio station for those outside of Australia) and realised that even public radio has the same problem. Awful repetition, just different music being repeated.

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the music well enough. It’s just that once you listened for a week or two you would find yourself listening to much the same songs every day. No different to my current forced radio listening (the radio on at work). Classic Rock 24/7. Nice in moderation.

Here’s what a friend of mine tweeted after the recent Triple J Hottest 100 was announced:

As usual the JJJ Hottest 100 was about as narrow-minded as any commercial radio countdown, which is fine… just don’t pretend it’s better.

That pretty much sums it up. The Triple J listening crowd do tend to see themselves as quite the alternatives, but that’s really just a matter of perspective. And I’m sure similar stations all over the world have much the same attitude. “Triple J” music is a particular sort of music and its listeners don’t have all that much to differentiate them from each other.

Do we all really just listen to a limited playlist like every radio station ever? Here’s a little test…

Last.fm user Anthony Liekens has created a couple of very useful scripts for our desired purpose. They take your top artists from your last.fm user profile and add in all the similar artists to each of them. The more unique artists you get in the total, the more eclectic your musical taste.

Try out the Eclectic Test and if you are truly awesome, the Super Eclectic Test.

If you get a pass result on either of them, give yourself a clap. And then consider coming and joining the Better Hottest 100 group on last.fm. I’ve got this idea that if we get enough truly eclectic listeners joining in, at the end of the year we can create our own chart that would show Triple J and its listeners was alternative really means.

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Where’s my Dr Who Lego?

My 12 year old son and his friend spent much of last weekend mixing and matching all his lego minifigs to make his own Dr Who Lego.

Given that there was nothing manufactured specifically for what they were trying to make, I think they did a great job.

I’ve never been that interested in branded Lego, but if they ever did a merchandising deal with the Beeb over this, they would have a large amount of my money. And plenty of my childrens’ too.

Please excuse the poor photography. I rushed a bit, perhaps I can upload some new versions later.

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The Conjurers’ War and The Locusta

The Great Empire of The Gristika was formed on its maritime power and for centuries had ruled the oceans. Its polar opposite was The Rozan Empire, created out of a forge of magic and violence. These two great peoples conquered The Known World. Ultimately their rivalry peaked and there was war.

Neither could gain the upper hand. They had such enormous armies that the chance of either making any sort of great advance was minimal. An arms race of sorts developed. Weapons that had never before been seen in the world were used. Explosives of the most violent sort. Flames from the very pits of Hell. Artillery that could attack from vast distances.

While this unending war raged on, the people of the central territories of the Empires barely knew anything was happening. The front would move tens, even hundreds of miles at a time, but always back and forth. The central peoples were untouched. The common man in either Capital wouldn’t even know there was a war on unless the prices for his favourite delicacy increased or if his son was conscripted and sent off to the front.

One hundred and years and more this went on. If the truth was really to be told, the war was off more often than it was on. On the frontiers there would be clashes; some small, some larger. Every few years a great conflict would arise, shifting the front to the advantage of one Empire or the other and then the armies would settle back into their uneasy routine. The war became part of the daily life of the Empires. Something that was just always there. Something to talk about in the market place. A jingoistic rallying point for the leaders. A place to go for the searchers for glory.

As so often happens in history, the approach to the war changed simultaneously in both Empires. Emperor Nikolae of the Roza and Francois de Gristika were both approached by their own Sages. They had calculated that if they couldn’t win the war using the people they did have, then they may have more success if they were to bring some more in. In other words: summon them from elsewhere.

At first, the Emperors rejected this idea. The wizardly discipline of Conjuring had been outlawed for centuries. Humankind had known, almost inherently, that they could not guarantee the control of creatures from beyond the mundane. They both resisted all advances.

The Sages went out gained support from the nobles for their ideas, and the nobles from the commoners. Ultimately, the Emperors were unable to control the discontent. They were asked “Do you not wish to win this war?” and they were unable to answer. They could not be seen to care about their Empires while they resisted this easiest of options. And besides; what if they decided not to take this route and the enemy had no such reservations? They would be wiped out.

With Imperial approval the Sages and the Colleges of Wizardry researched and tested their theories for a decade and a half. The Gristika worked towards what they thought would be the most simple, reliable and safe option: The Faerie Realm. The faeries (or the Vitter in the old tongue) were closer to the mundane and as such easier to control.

The Roza thought only of raw power. They looked to the very pits of the Abyss for their servants and would call forth whatever hell-spawn creatures they could get their hands on.

The Abyssal creatures, the Ferb, were most willing to come up to the world. It was their greatest desire. The Roza spent their time researching how to control them once they arrived. The Vitter were much harder to bring forth. They assumed it was their job to bring humans into their realm, not the other way around.

The initial summonings were simple and went relatively well. The creatures were powerful, able to perform all sorts of feats that their human opponents were not and they defeated whole armies at a time. After a number of defeats on each side, the Empires each realised that that their enemy had worked on the same plan. From this point on, the arms race began afresh. Each side needed to summon more and bigger creatures.

Eventually, the empires found themselves with armies of barely controlled and hostile aliens. Without any real warning they rebelled. Entire cities were destroyed. The armies of both Empires were destroyed from within by their supposed allies and the Conjurers themselves were destroyed and consumed by the creatures they were supposed to be controlling.

For five years the aliens (the Locusta as they came to be called) ravaged the lands. The human race escaped extinction only because there were two tribes of the Locusta. They killed each other on sight and their numbers gradually declined. With no more Conjurers, no further creatures could cross over into the mundane.

Unbelievably, the two men who started this devastation, Emperors Francois and Nikolae survived. Between their Battle-Wizard guards and their own cunning to survive, they had manage to avoid the Locusta, their own people, their human enemies and the now unrestrained barbarian tribes once kept well away from their borders.

In the wilds of the desert, they came across each other. They had both long since regretted their weakness of mind, they had no reason left to want to kill each other and decided to work together. Their team of wizards numbered one dozen only. They were the last of their kind and were the world’s last hope.

A year went by as they studied their enemies and worked out the best way to counter the efforts of the Conjurers. In the end it was decided that half of them would to work on a Dispelling, an anti-conjuring, to create a rift back to the worlds of the Locusta. The others worked on a great spell that would enable them to control the very elements, to call lightning from the sky in great thunderstorms and to rend the ground with earthquakes. As a team, they would create a rift and then use the elements to force the Locusta into it.

The emperors knew that they would not be able to destroy all of them at once. They worked on a plan where they would pick off small groups of Locusta, drawing attention to the fact that someone out there had worked out a way to destroy them, that they no longer had free reign around the world.

The Saints smiled on their efforts. For a year they travelled from mountain to valley to hill to coastline, finding groups of two or three Locusta and attacking. Eventually, the remaining Locusta decided that they could no longer ignore this threat. Setting the trap, the Emperors attacked on the ruins of Algundy, the former Gristik capital, killing half a dozen Vitter-creatures and then setting camp and waiting.

Four hundred Vitter and Ferbin arrived within an hour. Another hour later and there was nothing living left within one hundred miles. The Emperors dead. Their wizards torn apart by the Locusta and their own mighty magics. The Locusta killed or banished. And a continent, once the jewel of civilisation, destroyed and populated only by the desperate and the wild.

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I like… Time Machine

No, not that sort of time machine (though I do happen to like the TARDIS, and the DeLorean and HG Wells’ as well, but that’s another conversation).

No, I’m talking about Time Machine, the backup-made-so-simple-any-idiot-can-do-it software that comes with Mac OS X (10.5 and above). I won’t bore you with the details of what it is and how it works, you could find that out for yourself if you are so inclined. Instead, I’ll share why I like it so much and few extra comments.

I’m not any idiot (as referred to above), but I am a particular kind of idiot. I know the importance of backups (having desperately needed one on a number of occasions) and usually manage to keep up a good routine. The key word there is “usually”. A backup that doesn’t happen every time it is supposed is only fractionally better than no backup at all.

Time Machine (when your Mac is attached to its backup drive) backs up every part of your system every hour. Without fail. When you combine that with a wireless network-connected Time Capsule you are on to a sure winner.

Here’s what I do: I have the Time Capsule at the hub of my network (connected to printers etc) and two Macs elsewhere in the house. They get their files backed up automatically to the 1TB hard drive. Right now the oldest backups on the drive are about 3 or 4 months old and these gradually get deleted as newer ones take up more space.

Once a month, I bring home another external USB drive (which lives in the safe at work). I attach it to one of the Macs and change the Time Machine preferences so the backup is made to the USB drive. Of course, the incremental backup takes a bit longer (not having been done for a month) but it is still relatively fast and very, very easy. Repeat the process on the other machine, switch the prefs back so that the Capsule is used again, take the drive back to work and we are done.

So what I have is a local network drive with almost complete backups on it and a spare backup off-site with backups no more than a month old. If we have a hard drive failure or a broken computer, then we restore from the local backup and lose nothing. If we get broken into or our house burns down and lose everything, then we’ve got years’ worth of data safe off site and we lose at most one month’s worth.

Yes, I could do this better. My data could be even more secure, but I think this method is an acceptable blend of security vs effort. And apart from my once-a-month secondary backup, it is as good as automatic.

So, I’ve just got two thoughts on Time Machine to leave you with:

  1. This really is a killer app. Time Machine is a good enough reason on its own for you to get yourself a Mac. Seriously. I switched to Mac just before Leopard came out, but when I saw how Time Machine worked, I realised I would have swapped just for that. Setting up a computer for your parents or I-just-use-a-computer friends and co-workers? Get them to get a Mac and watch them never worry about backups.
  2. Why on Earth has no one done anything this good for Windows or Linux? Time Machine is over 2 years old. It doesn’t usually take this long for the me-too programs to arrive. Does Apple hold some super-sensitive patent that is preventing anyone from doing it? Inquiring minds want to know.

And that’s it. Thanks Apple. Thanks Time Machine.

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Quit while you’re ahead

I watched Terminator: Salvation last night and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has thought “Enough, already!”

It was an enjoyable enough experience, in a “blokes movie night” (thanks for the company Justin) sort of way. Loads of guns, loud noises, some interesting looking Terminators and a vaguely coherent plot. Unfortunately, there was just too much suspension of disbelief required. As if a jump-start defibrillation wasn’t enough, they went on to do a heart transplant in an open field hospital with that same heart (God alone knows where the anti-rejection drugs were going to come from).

This is all an aside from my real point… Why don’t some people just quit while they are ahead?

Terminator was a fantastic movie. Highly original plot, interesting and not-carboard-cutout characters, Arnold, Arnold not stretching himself artistically, guns, loud noises. What’s not to love? I remember having a discussion with a friend prior to the release of Terminator 2 that the whole concept ran the risk of entering a time-travel paradox of its own: Can’t kill Sarah Connor? Send someone else back to kill John. Or further back and have another go at Sarah?

Any of this sound familiar?

Before I go any further, I though T2 was a good movie too (and not only because of the GnR theme song), but it really didn’t need to be made. Sure the first movie left you with some unanswered questions, but that isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it is a good thing. Sometimes we can just enjoy things a bit more when our imagination is left to fill in some of the details.

How about I share a small list of great movies (or books, or TV) that really just should have quit while they were ahead:

  • Ghostbusters. Again, I’ve got nothing bad to say about Ghostbusters 2 and I’ll be in line to watch 3 if I get a chance. But, why?
  • Highlander. Oh, dear. Is and always will be my all-time-favourite-bestest movie. Just so long as I forget they ever made sequels. Why, oh why did they forget that “There can be only one”?
  • Red Dwarf. As if seasons 7 and 8 weren’t bad enough, but then they came back for more.
  • Toy Story. Shrek. Brilliant movies that finished their stories. Only one reason for a $equel.
  • The Blues Brothers (you can make a new Bluesmobile, but a new movie? Aargh!)
  • The Godfather (they keep dragging YOU back in?)
  • Comedies like Revenge of the Nerds and Police Academy. All the jokes that needed to be made were made in the originals. Repeated, they are just unfunny.
  • Mad Max (sure the original left the story open for a sequel, but it didn’t need it. To say nothing of more than one.)
  • Rocky (exactly the same story how many times is it now?)
  • Alien.
  • I could probably go on. But won’t.

I’m giving a free pass to Back to the Future (which could have stopped at 1, but at least it looked like the sequels were always planned), Star Trek (could stop at any time, but even the mutliple movies fit like a longer TV series), The Simpsons (because) and Indiana Jones (what pulp fiction character ever stops being awesome just because we get bored?). I’m enjoying The Fixer on SBS right now, but give me a few more episodes into season 2 before I decide that they should have just made a miniseries (how many times can John and Lenny argue over whether he’ll take orders or not?).

And to justify the TILT tag on this post, here’s my list of those movies and such that could easily have kept going, but stopped when they should. I like these (because they are awesome and because they knew when to quit):

  • The Princess Bride
  • Life on Mars (I could rant here about all the shows that the American TV industry feels the need to remake with local accents, but that would take too long)
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. They could make a sequel today and it would rake it in at the box office. But they haven’t. Therefore: Awesome.
  • Fawlty Towers. John Cleese, you are the master of comic timing. And a perfect judge of when smacking Manuel is no longer funny.
  • Blade Runner (Am I counting my chickens before they are hatched? They let a sequel novel be written so a film is not out of the question. Please no.)
  • Doctor Horrible’s Sing-along Blog (see above). I’d also like to add Firefly/Serenity here but I think their one series, one movie is more a case of good fortune rather than good planning.

And a couple of parting thoughts:

  • District 9, are you listening to this? No, really. District 10? No. Just, no.
  • Why can’t modern fantasy writers do anything that is not part of a trilogy or longer? They can be good at short stories, but not a single novel?

And before anyone complains, I know that there have been good sequels. Even good sequels that surpass the original (if only rarely). I just like stories that get told, we enjoy and are then over.

Until we read/hear/see them again.

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Here comes the Bladesage

For a number of years I have been telling myself I want to do more gaming (as in RPG gaming) and more writing. To make things easier, I thought I would try to make the two run together. Of course, I’ve participated in the last two NaNoWriMos (winning the last two), but precious little gaming and no writing outside of NaNo. There’s an expression about good intentions that I think applies here. Over the years I’ve had a couple of good ideas for a setting for this stuff but other than a few notes on various bits of paper, nothing much has happened. I even considered expanding the setting of my 2008 NaNoNovel and I didn’t even like it all that much!

Now, I am actually going to do something concrete. You read it here, so it must be true. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, if only because having people know about what I’m trying to do might keep me a little bit accountable.

Here’s the plan. The gaming (which will be solo initially, expanding to include the children as time and circumstances permit) will be using Swords and Wizardry and Mythic GME. The writing will be to fill in the blanks in history and world setting or to expand on something fun or interesting that comes up in the games. I hope to have plenty of back-story to be able to do NaNo ’10 using the setting and my NaNo/Twitter friend winnie3k has encouraged me to try to add a short story per quarter into the mix too.

Mythic Yahoo! group member blastedpsychic has produced a very clever Random Campaign Start-up Generator for Mythic which I have used. While I was planning to veto any rolls that really didn’t appeal (what on earth is a ‘Noir’ theme anyway?) I managed to get a very interesting setting out of it. I’ve given it the working name of Bladesage (after the significant city state in the area) and I’m planning to expand on some of the details I rolled up as I go..

I have a basic history, a set of bad guys, a possible good guy/girl, some external influences, some internal movements, a couple of non-human races and a terrifying wandering monster. I hope to share some of these in my next couple of posts.

Watch this space.

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Live Bookmarks or death!

Firefox uses Live Bookmarks, rather than the trimmed-down RSS reader that other browsers like Safari or IE have. It is the number 1 killer feature that keeps me tied to Firefox.

Let me explain why…

When you add a live bookmark to your toolbar or the bookmarks menu, it shows up as a menu, rather than as a single link. In Safari, you are then taken to a page that shows all the “stories” on a single page.

Have a look at this screenshot of Safari with my delicious.com feed (click for more detail):

The link on the toolbar is on the left, labelled “delicious/wynter”. If there was a new post in the feed it would show up with a (1) after the name of the bookmark. This is great if you want a newsreader.

Click on the bookmark and you get the page displayed as shown in the screenshot. I don’t generally put descriptions in my delicious items, but if I did, you would read them there.

So that’s Safari. It does what it does and it does it fairly well. If what you want is a bare-bones RSS reader mixed in with your browser, then you are set. The problem is, I don’t. If I wanted the latest stories from the New York Times (which btw is one of the default bookmarks in Safari) then I’ll put it in Google Reader (or my RSS reader of the hour).

Let me show you instead what I do want. This is how I use Live Bookmarks in Firefox.

The “Bookmarks” bit gives it away. I want something that gives me access to bookmarks… that is, lets me find pages I have been to before. It is no surprise that I have decided to use delicious.com (social bookmarking) as my example.

I have a small set of sites that I like to visit every day (or as often as I think to). I could just set all those pages as my “home” pages, but I use multiple browsers on multiple machines and the set of daily sites wasn’t always so small. Here’s how I manage to do what I want.

  • On delicious, I bookmark the sites and tag them with “daily” and “routine”.
  • Go to the delicious.com page where all those bookmarks live (http://delicious.com/wynter/routine+daily).
  • In the address bar I see the beautiful orange RSS logo. If I click on that, I get a page not dissimilar to Safari’s with the posts at the bottom and some subscription options at the top.
  • If I chose to subscribe by Live Bookmarks, I get to choose where to put my Live Bookmark. Normally, you would choose the Bookmarks toolbar. I have put this into a sub-folder (namely “routines”).

Have a look at what that looks like:

So you can see that if I go to my little “Routines-Daily” menu, I can get at all of my links that I want to. Even better (and this works for any FF bookmarks), I can hit the “Open all in tabs” option to get the whole lot to open in one hit. (And yes, before any smarties comment, I can right-click the menu to do the same thing).

So that’s it. Build a list specific tags in delicious, grab the RSS feed and put it in a large bookmark and you’ve got a handy menu that you can adjust and have reflected in any browsers you’ve set up with that menu. As you can see from the screenshot, I’ve got a few set up here.

I’ll be explaining the “Useful” feed (next to the Routines folder) in a future post.

One last thing:I might have to eat a little portion of humble pie. I hadn’t looked closely, but it seems that IE’s Web Slices does a very similar thing. Of course, there are plenty of other reasons not to use IE so I won’t let it bother me.

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I like… Webcomics

I was going to pick just one, but I can’t really stretch a whole post out of why I like a single webcomic, so I’ll speak generally and then give you a list.

I’ve followed certain webcomics for probably about 10 years now. In the early days that involved remembering which sites to go to and checking them every day. Needless to say, I didn’t follow too many back them.

At one point, I followed a set of instructions for writing a script for downloading all your favourite strips for offline reading (this was before always on broadband internet was common). It worked really well too. I even managed to write an offline ‘home page’ in HTML that displayed them all for me in one big page, one after the other. It also left me with a great archive of all the strips if I ever wanted to revisit them.

I never did.

Nowadays we have RSS feeds for most of them and it is a simple matter of plugging in a feed address into Google Reader or your reader of choice and away you go. Every time the strip gets updated, there it is. Webcomics have never been more accessible.

There is something about webcomics (as opposed to the normal paper-based strips) that appeals to me. First of all, I don’t buy the paper that often and the one that I do (the Weekend Australian) doesn’t have a funnies page (it’s far too high-brow for that). But as well as that, there are particular themes that run through many of them. Computers and the internet for one (for obvious reasons), geek culture in general is another. They make me feel right at home.

When I went to compile my list I noticed how small it has got. I have sometimes had as many as twenty or more, but I do cull them occasionally (like I do with all my RSS feeds) and I haven’t replaced them with anything new.

Just on the culling process, I have found that I don’t really like the larger strips with convoluted stories. Those strips that are essentially short stories in picture form. I like to just have a quick look, have a giggle then go on to the next one. For the same reason, when I read a paper with funnies I tend to skip over Phantom or Modesty Blaise and the like. If I want to read a graphic novel, I’ll go buy one from the newsagent.

Here I have my list of comics that are currently in my Google Reader:

  • Darths and Droids: A screen-capture strip made in homage to the great DM of the Rings (and if Shamus happens to read this: please, please, please put the old strips of Chainmail Bikini up somewhere). The artist is taking screen shots of the Star Wars films and making a comic strip story based on the premise that they are characters in a roleplaying game. Plenty of D&D and Star Wars in jokes. A bigger strip, but not too many words for my attention span.
  • Order of the Stick: D&D in jokes galore. OOTS is starting to try my patience with too-long strips, but I have had far too many laughs from them in the past to give up just yet.
  • PvP: or Player vs Player. The life of the team at a (computer) gaming magazine. Crude and sometimes potty-mouthed but without a doubt my favourite strip. Characters are well-defined and lovable (especially Skull the flatulent troll). I sometimes miss the computer-game references but there is plenty of D&D love in there too and most of the jokes are PvP-jokes anyway. Good work @pvponline!
  • Dilbert: Dilbert is required reading. It has its own line in the geek code for goodness sake!
  • Doghouse: as in “In the doghouse”. I’ve only just starting following Doghouse, but anything that makes jokes about the differences between men and women is good value in my book.
  • UserFriendly: The first version of The IT Crowd, only Canadian. An oldie but a goodie, but currently only running repeats.
  • OK, they are not really webcomics but you can get Calvin and Hobbes and Zits via RSS, so I do.
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auTAKU: An Australian Otaku Blog [tilt review]

To start my TILT (Things I Like Thursday) series, I thought I would point you in the direction of a relatively new blog run by my friend Steve McKenzie.

I make a point of following all the blogs run by RL friends and family and when I found Steve’s old blog “Steve Likes…” I added it to Google Reader and read the articles as they came off the press. To be honest, a lot of the things that Steve Likes I don’t have as much interest in as I might earlier have (but that probably says more about me than anything else) but Steve writes well and inspires interest in the things He Likes.

Which brings me to the successor blog, auTAKU. The name itself is a play on the term otaku with the “au” replacing the “o” because he’s an Aussie. Apparently, an otaku is a “person with obsessive interests, particularly anime, manga, and video games.” (thanks Wikipedia) and once you understand that, you’ll get an idea of the content over at auTAKU.

There’s reviews of computer games, movies, collectable figures, anime/manga, technology and all sorts of Japan-related stuff. Like I said earlier, most of this means very little to me but if he can keep the interest of an unbeliever like myself I can imagine that the site would be of particular interest to anyone who shares the things Steve Likes (are you listening @starconstant?)

I am particularly impressed with the way Steve has branded his blog. He’s set a target of what he wants to write about, picked a really cool and clever name (which he really needs to pick up the domain for before he loses the chance) and posts regularly with well-written posts.

Anyone with an interest in popular Japanese culture or anyone who just wants to see a well-done startup blog should go visit Steve now. And if you’ve missed all my links hidden in the text and images above, here it is again: http://autaku.wordpress.com/.

(Don’t take this the wrong way Steve, but I rushed this post so I could get started on my Project52 challenge and my TILT series. Doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate your work any less.)

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