ZigZag is Launched!

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We’re pleased to announce that Greyland has just launched the new ZigZag Cafe website!

ZigZag is a Seattle cocktail institution in Pike Place Market. Low warm lighting, craft cocktails, and a full menu have made it a popular date and drinking aficionado spot. Needless to say, we here at Greyland were more than happy to do plenty of research into our client’s business.

Like many small businesses, ZigZag originally had a simple static website that got the job done - map to the location, excellent photography, and low maintenance. However, every business changes as it goes - new staff, revised description, and specifically in ZigZag’s case, seasonal menus.

Wordpress was the most obvious solution, but not for blogging. Its simple page structure matched with the Advanced Custom Fields plugin, allowed the ZigZag to quickly enter and alter menu content as well as being able to reuse menu sections between different menus. The goal was to allow for simple text content entry with the power to shift those around using a draggable UI.

Paired once again with Royce McLean of Galvanic, we wanted to create a simple site that really demanded - get out of the way and show us the pictures and menu. McLean added small touches of scrollwork and matched the site’s theme to the lighting found in the cafe.

Dessert menu demonstrating the various scrollwork

Dessert menu demonstrating the various scrollwork

We really wanted to reflect Cafe owner Ben Dougherty’s focus on mood over what can typically happen with restaurant websites - black tall san-serif text on white background next to huge pictures. No offense to this (SquareSpace, who powers this site, has killed it with this approach), but small bits of tone can go a long way.

Obviously check out ZigZag if you’re in Seattle, and if you’ve got a similar site in need - feel free to reach out.

Project: Guardians of the Elusive Mole

Last year, Greyland partnered with Northwest University and Galvanic illustrator Royce Mclean to create a chemistry game for students to help them learn about the science's primary unit of measurement - the Mole.

Previously, the school had found that students had tremendous difficulty with the concept. A couple years ago, just for fun, a student decided to write a “Let It Go” spoof about the mole. Surprisingly, despite its just-for-kicks approach, when the song was sent to the rest of the chemistry students by Professor Caicai Wu almost everyone improved their test scores. After seeing this success, professor Wu thought that a game would be the next best step, so she reached out to fellow professor and Greyland developer, Corey.

After a number of discussions, along with a little remedial chemistry, the Chemistry department and Greyland developed an outline for a simple quiz game that used the ice theme of Frozen. Royce decided to amp up the cute characters from Frozen, drawing inspiration from Nordic mythology, to create the Chemistry Guardians.

Royce’s design gave the game a quirky intensity that we believed would create a lasting impression on students. As professor Wu discovered with the original mole song, giving students these out of sorts experiences helped them remember as the song and here with the game, the approach was not the type of thing they’d typically see in a chemistry class.

Coding a project like this has pretty low overhead. The primary concerns were responsiveness in the question frames and ease of editing content. Using a “Bill of Materials” (BOM) approach, the game engine simply ingested a JSON object that had all the questions, labels, answers, hints and then built out the each stage as the student progressed. The structure was simple enough that we could use the same level and menu parent classes to build out level screens as well as the introductory and end screens.

The game is planned to be used as part of the chemistry department’s 2017 curriculum and we look forward to hearing about how students react. You can play the game yourself on Greyland’s mirror.

Programming Discipline: Daily Logs

Behind my desk and under it are hundreds of pounds of books on programming. There are the usual suspects: language books, textbooks, hardware documentation, how to run software teams, and then there are the books that talk about software craftsmanship.

Programmers get into the field either from a specific starting platform or language, usually to accomplish something right in front of them - I want to tweak Minecraft, I need to fix DOS, WordPress isn’t doing the thing I want. It’s code sure, but operative in the way Excel equations total expenses. They aren’t about mathematics. It’s only later on that programmers start thinking about platforms and languages agnostically.

So we come to books such as Code Complete, Clean Code, The Pragmatic Programmer, Refactoring, Domain-Driven Design, The Practice of Programming, Growing Object-Oriented Software Guided by Tests, and Design Patterns.

I own all these books and others. They’ve helped me a lot, however, these books and every rockstar programmer have never suggested what every English teacher has told you - journal every day.

Journaling is typically thought of as - what did I do today? Nothing against this of course. Folks write down what they learned, what they did well, what they could have done better, what they’re excited for tomorrow. All great, but not what concerns me.

Another approach for programmers is to log your progress through issues. Keep track of every step you make through a problem - your false starts, the line numbers affected, links to documentation related to the problem at hand, comments on improvements / future refactoring, places where you made decisions that involved technical choices versus financial / time pressures, and then narrate it all.

The log becomes your consciousness as you go and it serves a few purposes. First, it allows you to go back and get in your head space when you were last working on a section of code; second, if you happen to get abducted by aliens, someone can follow where you left off; third, it forces you to justify your actions to yourself and others in the future.

If you are explaining the issue to yourself, you are essentially trying to explain it generally, which means you can anticipate questions, concerns, and identify areas where you need to research more.

Programmers have this tendency to be way too declarative as if one problem had only one solution, while at any decent level of complexity, naturally there will be multiple solutions. Just like a doctor or lawyer, by logging you are building a case for your approach. And it begs the question - have you really thought about why you approached the problem in the way you did?

When you’re starting out, programmers can get focused on just seeing issues move across the Jira board. When they move on past that, work might move into sufficient stability with impressive speed. Past that, coding might be implementing what seems sufficiently complex to merit either awe from the younglings or depth that no one is really patient enough to investigate your decisions.

When you journal your decisions, none of these are acceptable.

To make logging even more disciplined, share your log with your team (we do this here at Greyland). This will expose your thought process and research, which enriches everyone, and encourages everyone to do likewise, even if no one ever reads it.

In the future you may be a overseeing a complex systems, with billions on the line, and people’s future and lives in the balance - wouldn’t you like to be practiced at explaining yourself?

Simple game, great interactive

The New York Times did some clever storytelling for the Women’s World Cup Finals - remove the balls from their pictures and let the users, based on the pictured athletes motion and eyes, guess where it was.

Since most people don’t do this sort of thing on a normal basis, after a couple rounds you’ll start to intuit where the ball may be, and your guess will be contrasted against others after you commit to a guess.

As a non-soccer fan, I like this interaction - it’s a simple idea that works well on the web and draws in readers like me. I didn’t give the text too much thought, but I tried several pages of the ball guessing.

Moreover, the NYT chose a small game that wasn’t gimmicky or too on the nose. Approached another way, this could have been a silly “kick the ball” advert-mini-game that didn’t expose me to any of the actual athletes or at least attempt to engage with the timeline each guess fleshes out.

Best of all, I don’t actually have to engage with the guessing game if I don’t care. Ultimately, it’s a nice balance of appeal for both the fan and bored internet clicker alike.

I don't think Minecraft means, what you think it means

I’ve heard Minecraft described as “Legos for adults.” That’s a fairly good generalization to the uninitiated player. However it’s more - it’s getting to live, explore and create in that Lego-like world you inhabit.

And it’s why I don’t really get the excitement around Minecraft using Microsoft's new HoloLens.

The demo looked really incredible, and I can’t deny that there is a charm to interacting with your MC world from a new perspective, as if they were actual blocks in your home. Tabling the criticisms of the HoloLens around its small viewport and orientation procedures, the gameplay in Minecraft with the HoloLens overall doesn’t appeal to me. In fact, the HoloLens kind of ruins the fun.

Take the far-off perspective available with the holograms. The flying perspective native to Minecraft doesn’t let you slice the level as shown in the demo and only occurs when in creative mode. Albeit, this is a feature beyond what’s currently available, however, discovering fortresses and caves, along with their resources, using this feature takes away the fun. If you can just zoom out and spot what you need, there goes the excitement of finding it. Part of the addictive nature of Minecraft is the feeling that there’s something special just beyond that next block, but with the HoloLens, you won’t anticipate, you’ll just see.

Watching and tracking players from a real third-person perspective is, again, novel, but is antithetical to the immersion of the existing game, or really most games.

Seriously - if I am trying to enjoy a game and my wife is making dinner in the background or my cat jumps on the table, I can’t really get into that game. I don’t require a first-person perspective for immersion, but now the real environment can affect my focus on the game.

I can see some value to the holographic perspective. First, if features like drag could be added to allow players to quickly set a line of blocks, or even a wall, this would save a lot of time for creative builders. Second, when playing with other people, it would be a lot of fun to have a “dungeon master”-like player would add some fun multiplayer gaming scenarios and adventures.

However, that’s really the core of it. The gameplay that is the joy of Minecraft - immersion, exploration, and laborious creating a huge structure in survival - is removed by the HoloLens and we as players can think of some places where it might work, but ultimately, I just want to get back to my laptop screen.

IHOP Logo Redesign

IHOP has redesigned their logo after almost 20 years. The chain launched in Los Angeles in 1958 and has since built an empire of more than 1600 locations nationwide.

I like the update personally, it leans into their "friendly, no nonsense" brand vibe and feels welcoming. I can't say that I frequent IHOP on a regular basis, but the memories I DO have of going their are all filled with warm fuzzies. Whether it's all the choices of pancakes and syrups or the never-ending cheap coffee -- it's all good as far as I'm concerned.

Curious to see what the "Summer of Smiles" campaign, that roles out along with this new logo, will look like. No doubt they are trying to leverage some recent momentum in their domestic sales growth. I say "Good Luck IHOP." I hope you're filling bellies with pancakes for years to come! 

Dragon Warrior with a natural terrain generation

Hunter Loftis has been one of the more fun programmers I follow online. He's created a good reputation for himself by taking seemingly complicated graphical programming tasks and creating simple JavaScript that produces FPS engines and to the point of this article - natural terrain generation. 

Loftis used the midpoint displacement algorithm to generate 3D geographic maps that even had a sea level. Brilliant, but honestly a little too complex for my blood. 

What I wanted was the ability to create simple 2D maps that resonated with the RPGs I played as a kid and teen, and so I altered Loftis' algorithm and generator to produce geographic maps using the art from the 1989 game Dragon Warrior. These maps follow the geographic generation algorithm but instead of producing three dimensional height, instead mountains, hills, sand, grass and water indicate elevation. 

Loftis did a fantastic job communicating a simple but powerful algorithm. I've seen lots of tricks for terrain generation for games and writers, but this application is by far my favorite as each load of the program is a surprise. 

The code is available on github and if anyone wants to fork it and add caves, villages and castles, I look forward to any additions. 

Apple Watch: Friend or Foe?

I am on the fence about Apple's latest release of the Apple Watch... is it just another piece of technology that I will get bored of like I did the FitBit? 80% of FitBit users discarded the bracelet after just 6 months of use. The battery life is also a problem. If this is supposed to replace my watch, but it doesn't have the battery life to stay illuminated what good does it do? It needs to be charged every night no matter what, which just seems impractical for a fashion accessory.

I know the biggest bonus of this device is the push notification feature, every email, text, tweet or Facebook message can be pushed to my wrist. But I ask, do I really want another electronic thing to check all the time? I can picture it now, I'm at lunch with a friend and I've made the conscious decision to keep my phone in my bag so I'm not tempted to get distracted and check it. Now however, I have easy access 24/7 right in plain view. When people are already having trouble disconnecting these days, isn't this just another in-your-face distraction?

I get that the apps are also intriguing, most perhaps being the two fitness apps that come pre-loaded. It allows you to track the standard stuff, heart rate, and steps but the watch nags at you when you've been too sedentary. However it can't differentiate whether you're working or driving in your car. Great, so now on-top of my own self-loathing because I didn't hit the gym that morning, now I get judged by my watch? No thanks.

I'm most interested in the Apple Watch when our environments become more customized. Example, I walk into my favorite coffee shop and my apple watch pings their digital system to start making my favorite coffee which is then automatically payed for all without me having to launch anything. When that is possible, I'll be the first one in line to buy that watch.