July 31, 2004

Tour de France Primer, part 2

by psu

With the race over, this is obviously a good time to write the second part of my little stage racing primer. This part focuses primarily on tactics and strategy.

Each rider and team goes into the Tour with different goals and expectations. Most teams are there to try and win a couple of stages and get into breakaways so their sponsor logos are on TV for a while. A few teams with strong sprinters will try and win the Green jersey. A few other teams with strong climbers will try and get the mountain jersey. Finally, a few teams will have riders that they think can win the overall.

The other main thing to understand about the race is that it lasts three weeks. As such, teams have to be careful about how they spend their energy. No team can chase down every breakaway and try and win every stage. Teams must be careful to expend energy only when the outcome is important to them. This is why you saw Postal give up a nine minute lead and the Yellow jersey to Voelker this year. They knew that he wouldn't last in the mountains and they also knew that with the Yellow jersey on a different team, they would not have to chase down breakways, thus saving energy for the important days.

Finally, day to day tactics depend on the nature of the stage:

- Flat stages: These are the days for the sprinter teams. These teams will try to keep the race together for a big bunch sprint at the end. If the overall is close, then teams contending for it will also want to control breakaways that may affect the yellow jersey. The fact that teams are motivated to chase down breaks and the fact that it's relatively "easy" to do so on flat roads as compared to mountains means that large shifts in the overall don't generally happen on flat days.

Late in the race the flat stages (or stages with small hills) become the one place where teams that are not contending for the overall, and don't have a strong sprinter can pick off stage wins. This is because if the break doesn't have any threatening riders, in general it will be allowed to stay away since it takes a lot of energy to chase it down. This is where you'll see the stages where breakaways get 15 minutes ahead of the group. This works out because to win the overall, you just have to have the best overall time. Whether or not you win stages doesn't actually matter. Indurain won the race multiple times without ever winning a road stage.

- Time trials: This is where the big boys take the lead. To win the Tour you must be able to ride a really strong time trial. The difference between an OK time trial and a really strong time trial is measured in minutes so in general these stages tend to have a large effect on the overall classification. When Miguel Indurain won five tours in a row, he did it primarily by destroying people in the time trial (by four or five minutes) and then not losing time anywhere else.

- Mountain stages: This is where the race is won and lost. Again, guys who can climb will make minutes per day on guys who can't. These stages are where the climbers will try and make back time they lost in the time trial, the strong time trial riders will try to keep up, and where the sprinters just suffer. Lance has won his six primarily with strong stage wins in the mountains backed up by strong wins in the time trials. What the strong teams do here is make the pace so high in the climbs that the weak teams fall away. For example, a couple of different times this year, Postal managed to drop everyone but a single rider on the CSC team by the last climb of the day. This is good for two reasons. First, it means they are making time on everyone. Second, if the final group has two Postal riders but only one "enemy" rider, this is a huge advantage for Lance in multiple ways. In general, Postal was perfect in the mountains this year, whereas last year there were multiple occasions where Lance was by himself on the last climb.

Posted by psu at 01:47 PM | Comments (0)

July 30, 2004

That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore, Part 1

by peterb


APB ("All Points Bulletin") was an Atari arcade game designed by Dave Theurer, who also made the classic games Missile Command, Tempest -- the best arcade game ever made, for my money -- and I, Robot. It was the forebear of the original, overhead view Grand Theft Auto games. It was primarily a driving game; you were a police officer, and had a certain amount of time to arrest a certain number of miscreants (hitchhikers, litterers, speeders, etc.) while avoiding getting demerits. It was fairly challenging. On each round, there was a special "super villain" you could arrest to end the round immediately and get bonus points.

The game was published in 1987, also known as "a few years before the Rodney King incident." If you caught the super villain -- the first one was a hippie -- the view switched to an exterior view of the interrogation room, with you and the suspect visible in silhouette. Your fat, stupid, donut-eating sergeant was slowly walking down the stairs. You then slapped the buttons fast and hard to "interrogate" (read: beat up) the suspect. If you beat him up enough before the sergeant came in to the room and witnessed the rights violation, he would confess.

It was popular at the time for Congressmen, Senators, and other idiots to complain about the values that videogames taught "our children," but I never once heard a Congressman or law enforcement official complain about the values taught by a game that gave you points for beating up a suspect.

Posted by peterb at 11:16 PM | Comments (0)

July 29, 2004

Time Travel

by peterb

HOUR 1: Hey! Guys! I got DOOM 3! Whooooooo!

HOUR 2: Stupid installer erased my datebook.

HOUR 3: OK, it's running. Why is everything so slow? What the hell?

DAY 2: Got new videocard at CompUSA. Runs OK now, when not crashing.

DAY 3: Couldn't take crashing. Bought new computer.

DAY 3: Still crashing. Hate everyone.

DAY 4: No friends playing; computers all too slow. Maybe play with strangers?

DAY 5: 13 year old kids humiliating me. Hate everyone and everything.

DAY 6: I will master this. Stayed home from work to practice.

DAY 7: Boss called. Told him I had plague.

DAY 8: Lost to Estonian third-grade girl, 16-0. Hate everyone and everything in the entire universe.

DAY 10: Stopped playing stupid game. Will wait for Halo 2.

Posted by peterb at 06:39 PM | Comments (4)

July 28, 2004


by peterb
Shelf of old videogames and computers

Shelf 1 (of 4)

Nostalgia, in general, is an emotion that I am suspicious of. We grow by moving forward, and though sometimes that involves looking back introspectively, nostalgia is the opposite of introspection: it is the fetishism of the past. Some part of the past is thought of as good because it wells up nostalgic feelings, rather than because of anything one can qualify objectively. I try to consciously choose introspection instead of nostalgia whenever I can. However -- as the regular reader may be able to guess -- when it comes to obsolete videogames, I am completely in thrall to the teenager in my head.

I don't think this is uncommon. If you ask people (or at least American men) who grew up in certain eras what the best video game consoles were, you will get different answers -- I'm in the Atari 2600 camp, those about 5 years younger than me will talk about the original Nintendo Entertainment System, those a few years younger than that will talk about the Sega Genesis or the SNES, and so on. Basically, whatever your first console was (or, whatever the first console that you best friend had but your parents wouldn't get for you was, so later in life you feel compelled to buy them on eBay. Er, not that I'd know), that's the one that you feel nostalgic for. This works for old home computers, too, and of course computer games.

The most recent wave of nostalgia to overcome me is the "Ultima Classics" package put together by one very obsessive-compulsive fan. It's floating around the ether, and if you have a Windows PC and are at all interested in classic games I recommend you track it down. I actually already own all of the Ultima games -- some in their Apple ][ incarnations -- but the sheer comprehensiveness of the collection inspires nothing short of awe. Included are every version of every Ultima game (except Ultima 9) for the PC, Apple ][, Commodore 64, Vic-20 (!), and Amiga platforms, along with emulators to run the non-PC native ports. Also included are various fan-authored remakes and ports (such as Exult and XU4), full documentation for every game, and just to add insult to injury a series of videoclips of Richard Garriott (a.k.a. Lord British) talking about his work.

This, therefore, seems like a good time to talk about the Ultima games and their progress through the years.

Time and travel made me wise
precious gold, a clue it buys!
Ultima II

Ultima II

The first Ultima game I played was Ultima II. I remember staring at the fabulous box cover art in a software store -- in 1982, when the idea of a store that sold software was itself an innovative and risky idea -- and saying to myself, "I must have that". The packaging was part of the excitement of the game -- it came with a wonderful cloth printed map of the Earth. Very spiffy.

The goal of Ultima II was to kill the Enchantress, Minax. I wasn't too clear on why she had to die, but the game manual said so, and I was a big believer in obeying authority. (Minax, it seems, was the apprentice of the wizard the player allegedly assassinated in the first Ultima game, but I hadn't played that yet). Sure, it's standard fantasy garbage, but it was very well packaged standard fantasy garbage. At the age of 13, I found the very idea of a powerful, evil villain being a woman to be very surprising, even transgressive. Ah, innocence.

Ask me no questions, I'll tell you no lies
The Queen is the King and the King is a spy
I liked a lot of things about Ultima II. I liked that it was fast. I liked that it took place on a map of Earth rather than in some amorphous fantasyland. I liked that it had time travel, and that the portals you walked through were called "moongates" -- that sounded really cool and science fictiony. I liked the various eras you could travel to: there were frigates in the seas in the middle ages, go back far enough in time and you're in Pangaea, go ahead far enough and you find yourself in a world after the nuclear holocaust. I liked the little staticky <braaaaaap> sound the game made when you hit a bad guy.

The game centered around combat, which was fast and furious: enemies walked up to you in the wild and you beat on each other until one of you died. Despite this focus, there was a plot of sorts. You could talk to every townsperson; 90% of them had nothing interesting to say (every fighter, for example, would say "Ugh, me tough!" and every cleric would say "Believe!") A small minority of townspeople (often behind locked doors, almost always standing still) would give you bits and pieces of the plot, or clues about where to look next.

Ultima II, Europe

Ultima II - Europe

One of the best parts of the game, for me, was the space travel. The entire solar system was modeled (to a minimal degree) in the game; you could land on every planet, and every planet had at least a small human outpost, which you could walk around and talk to people at and advance the plot. Realistic? Of course not. Fun? Absolutely: just the idea of saying "Hey! I wonder what kind of colony is on Mercury?" is enough to stir my imagination. Maybe I'm an easy sell, but I found this enchanting as a teenager, and it still makes me smile today.

I finished Ultima II in record time, and was desperate for more. Rumors swirled that there would be a sequel, but I couldn't wait that long. I found Garriott's first game, Akalabeth (informally, "Ultima 0") at an Apple retailer in Westfield, NJ, hanging in a cheesy ziplock bag on a rack, and also picked up the first Ultima game at the same time.

I needn't have bothered with Akalabeth. While it has collectible cachet today, it's pretty much intolerably unplayable, and anyway is incorporated wholesale as basically the dungeon parts of Ultima I. I played Ultima I through to completion throughout 7th grade, but it was painful. It looked just like Ultima II -- at least in the "outside" world -- but was painfully slow; there was a delay of about a quarter-second each time you took a step. And the cities were primitive compared to the later game. Still, perhaps because I had some lingering guilt over my brutal murder of the Enchantress from the latter game, I pressed on, determined to seek karmic balance by committing the crime for which she sought revenge. Ultima I is littered with odd bits of literary flotsam and jetsam ("Find the Pillar of Ozymandias!" the King commanded me, and when I dutifully reached it -- I was still following orders at that point in my life -- a few lines from Shelley's poem were among my reward). The incorporation of literary themes by reference was common in the days before advanced graphics were vivid enough to be representational enough standing by themselves. To this day, one of my most vivid memories from that era is playing a text-based Star Trek game which, for no apparent reason, would occasionally emit page-long quotes from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. Every so often, driven by nostalgia, I scour the internet, looking for it. I haven't found it yet. I'll never find it. If I ever do find it, I will be disappointed.

(One bug in Ultima Classics v1.3, by the way, is the lack of the original Ultima. The organizer included two versions labeled "original" and "enhanced," but this is a mistake -- the "original" version he includes is in fact simply another copy of the "enhanced" assembly language rewrite that Origin did in the mid-80s. The original Ultima, written entirely in glorious Applesoft Basic, can still be found at the Asimov Apple ][ archive, or on rotting 5 1/4" floppy disks of those of us old enough to have bought it and lame enough to have kept it as a souvenir.)

Ultima II

Ultima III

Finally, after months of endless waiting, Exodus: Ultima III was released. It was the last Ultima that I actually played to completion; it was also the last Ultima that was released while I was in Junior High. That's not a coincidence. The plot -- well, the plot is exactly the same as the previous two games, Minax and Mondain had a child, Exodus, who threatens the peace of the world, so could you please go kill him? Thanks!

Exodus had real music, if you shelled out the money for a "Mockingboard," a sound card for the Apple ][. I begged and pleaded with my dad, trying to somehow convince him that this was essential to me eventually having a lucrative and rewarding career as a software developer (Hey, Dad! It worked!) and he eventually gave in and bought the damn thing. I loved the music.

The biggest change was that instead of being a lone adventurer wandering the wide world, you controlled a party of up to 4. Somehow, this made the game social: every day after school, Albert Bobowski and Paul Castlegrant would come over and we'd play Ultima III until late into the night, confusing the hell out of our parents who didn't understand what we were doing on the computer for so long.

Another change in Ultima III was the introduction of tactical combat. When you encountered an enemy on the world map, the view changed to a tactical map where your party would be confronting a group of enemies. You could then manuever around the map, shooting arrows, casting magic spells, and whomping on each other. Most people think of this as a great improvement, but my tiny simian brain actually preferred the simpler, faster combat of Ultima II. The tactics don't really change much throughout the game, so once you figure out the One Correct Way To Win Battles, it's all just stretching out the game.

Paul, Albert and I eventually did finish Ultima III, learning the horrific secret of Exodus and returned to our normal juvenile deliquent activities. It was two years until the next game, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar came out. I got it, and played it quite a bit, but by this point school and after-school activities were competing with videogames for attention. I loved the intricate plot of the game, and the focus on developing your character's virtues. To this day, I can't tell you what the Christian seven deadly sins are, and I can't tell you what Buddha's Eightfold path, is and I can't tell you what various Jewish mitzvot are, but I know instantly that the eight virtues of the Avatar are Compassion, Honor, Justice, Valor, Honesty, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Humility. What's my religion? I'm an Ultimist!

Once you perfect your virtues, however, the rest of the game is basically a dungeon crawl, and combat in Ultima IV was even slower than in Ultima III. I simply told myself that from an ethical standpoint, I had fininshed the game by becoming the Avatar of Virtue, and moved on. Fundamentally, once you've slogged through one dungeon, you've slogged through them all.

Ultima V came out right as I went to college. I bought it, but didn't have an machine to play it on (I tried playing it on one of the library's Apple ][s, but the environment was just all wrong.) I've tried playing it a few times since then, but haven't truly gotten in to it.

Ultima VI I saw while working at one of the computer clusters in Wean Hall. I poked around with it a bit, but I found its mouse-based nature offputting. A year later, I did end up trying the Martian Dreams game based on the same engine, and played it to completion. I'm a sucker for a good alternative universe, and taking a spaceship to Mars with Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Nelly Bly, and H.G. Wells was beyond my power to resist. It was a well-written game, and I'd play it again if I could make time.

By the time Ultima VII came out, I was in grad school, and even three years after it came out computers still weren't really fast enough to actually play it and have it be bearable. It's only in the past few years, with the success of the open-source Exult project, that playing Ultima VII has become a reasonable option for most of us. It turns out it's a reasonably OK game. Who knew? Certainly not me: my experience with U7 was so bad that I gave up on the franchise completely.

It was around the time that Ultima III was announced -- Reagan was President then -- that people started making jokes about how "Ultima 9" and "Wizardry 12" would be coming out in the late 90's. It was kind of a backhanded slap to the very idea of sequels in computer games: every year, games come out which are totally new, which are totally innovative. As if we'll be playing the same old tired genre games twenty years from now! As if the fickle computer game player could possibly have that much desire for continuity.

And, of course, now there is an Ultima 9, and every year another Madden football game comes out, and every year people buy the new one, and innovation, when it comes to actually making money on games, is more of a curse word than a byword.

And here's where nostalgia is our enemy: the temptation to say that it is the older Ultima games that are better, because they are somehow "purer," that later games in the series were panned by critics and fans because they weren't "true" to the spirit of the game. This is a lie. The purity of the earlier games is nothing more than a memory of the purity of youth, when you could use a game with a terrible user interface and inconsistent pacing and not notice. The Ultima games are remarkable for their consistency, both in vision, character, and mechanics, even until the end. The things that were good in the very first ones -- epic scope, quirky characters, a unique sense of place -- are good in the very last ones. The things that were not very good in the very first ones -- terrible user interface, langourously paced plot, the drudgery of combat -- are not very good in the very last ones. Only the implementation details have changed.

There is, I think, something special about the original Ultima games when compared to their contemporaries. They had a unique narrative voice that sprung from their being the product, essentially, of one man. That's not to say his narrative voice was the best of all possible ones; merely that it was unique, and that the player can feel this. Compare it to, for example, two games that have nearly the exact same graphical quality, scope, and game mechanics of Ultima: Chris Crim's The Wrath of Denethenor and Xyphus. They're both eminently playable, but they're missing some ineffable element.

What that element is, I can't say. I know it when I see it. But I know that it is more likely to come from the mind and heart of one person, such as Brad Wardell, then from any design committee in the heart of NCSoft or Blizzard.

Pining for the days when one man could program an epic adventure and bemoaning the fact that all 'big' games today are designed by committee: that's nostalgia. Thinking about how we can commit enough resources and large enough teams to create a modern video game while still maintaining the design integrity and vision that a single designer brings: that's introspection.

Additional Resources

  • Here is the info file for the Ultima Classics collection, detailing exactly what it contains. Marvel in its obsessive-compulsiveness.
  • If you don't want the whole shebang that is the Ultima Classics collection, you can pick them up piecemeal. The Exult project is your best bet for experiencing Ultima VII on modern PC hardware. For Ultima IV, you'll want to download XU4 (Kudos to Electronic Arts for making the source code to Ultima IV public domain!) Some of the other games in the series are available freely, or nearly so, on the net. Let google be your guide.
  • If you're desperate for a boxed set, and don't want to sully yourself with bittorrent, you can buy a perfectly legal version of The Ultima Collection from Amazon. Then you should go download Ultima Classics anyway just to get all of the emulators and PC utilities correctly packaged to make playing them easy.
  • Ultima-alikes The Wrath of Denethenor and Xyphus. Both are available from the Asimov Apple ][ archive.
  • Contest! For extra bonus geek points (and without looking it up on the web) tell me what Minax says if, instead of attacking her, you talk to her. Correct answer wins absolutely nothing except the admiration of millions, or at least tens.

Posted by peterb at 05:55 PM | Comments (19)

July 27, 2004

DVD Menus: A Desperate Plea

by psu

Here is what happens to me on a regular basis when trying to access the various "extras" on a DVD release:

- Put DVD into player.

- Watch the FBI warning for 5 minutes while the controls on the player are locked out.

- Watch 5 minute cut scene from the movie or whatever.

- Watch for 5 minutes as the menu animates into the screen.

- Click around at random with the arrow keys on my DVD remote and squint at the screen to see if the state changed at all.

- Hit Play at the wrong time. Watch another little canned animation that means the track I picked is about to play.

- Hit Stop, then Menu, watch 10 more minutes of cut scenes as the menu comes back to the screen.

Rip DVD player out of the wall and throw it through a window.

So, my question is, why do they do this to me? Who thinks this is a good idea? Who are the poor slobs working at the media companies spending months developing this drek that is specifically designed to make it difficult and time consuming to actually play the content that I bought the disk to see?

The most egregious example of this sort of "design" was the DVD for Daredevil. The menus on that disk were all done with the same visual effects used to simulate how Daredevil sees the world. Trouble is, Daredevil is blind. The effect of this is that it is completely impossible to read the menus at all. Brilliant!

My only conclusion is that the people who package this stuff are dumber than rocks.

My Plea: please free me from this awful world.

Posted by psu at 12:29 AM | Comments (7)

July 26, 2004

Hockenheim: Quote of the Race

by peterb

Heinz Pruiller, a commentator for ORF TV in Austria was asked "How many more races is Michael Schumacher going to win before the end of the year?"

He looked at Speed TV's David Windsor as if he were daft, and answered: "All of them. All of them."

He paused, briefly.

"All of them."

Posted by peterb at 04:25 PM | Comments (1)

July 23, 2004

Latter Days

by peterb
Latter Days

Latter Days

For those unfamiliar with it, Cerebus is mixed-media pictures and text, black and white ink on paper, originally released as 20 page bound pamphlets, periodically bound into folios referred to as "phonebooks." That's how you'd describe it in a museum, anyway. A more concise description would be "Cerebus is a graphic novel." A less pretentious description would be "Cerebus is a comic book." The most recent "phone book", covering the penultimate chapters of Dave Sim's epic work, is entitled Latter Days.

This by itself guarantees that practically no one will read it. The American literary establishment is composed of people who are, by and large, afraid of visual art; unless the art is safely caged within a gallery or a museum, its presence is threatening, intimidating, confusing. Every ten years or so The New Yorker or some similar arm of the prep-school cultural politburo will publish a brief item by some bewildered trust fund baby who just discovered that maybe Art Spiegelman's Maus isn't really for kids. They talk about the article at a gallery opening. "Well, of course, I've known about Spiegelman for years, darling. I met his wife, Françoise, in the Hamptons last summer." Even more galling to me are the articles about Japanese manga and how adults in Japan read them, completely ignoring the vibrant work, such as Cerebus, that you can find right here.

Then they ignore the medium for another ten years.

So comic books occupy a singular place in American culture. Everyone -- without exception -- has read them at some point or another. The "funny pages" are probably the most fought over section of newspapers in busy households, and the political cartoon is still alive as an acceptable art form for adults to enjoy. Beyond that, the medium has languished in the children's ghetto mostly because of distribution issues: since most of the money in the medium is to be made from kids and teenagers, the major distributors focus their marketing and distribution efforts there, which retards the growth of the adult graphic novel market. It's a bit of a vicious circle, although the fact that most mass market bookstores at least have a graphic novel section is a sign of some small improvement.

The unique position of comic books in our culture is a recurring theme in Cerebus, which isn't surprising given Sim's role as one of the most prominent self-published writers. It sometimes has negative aspects. Comic book characters and, often, their authors make appearances throughout the text as extended in-jokes. So, for example, if you don't know anything about Todd McFarlane's Spawn character, or about McFarlane's reputation as a ruthless capitalist who can turn anything, anything at all, into a profitable merchandising opportunity, some of the early parts of Latter Days will simply go over your head. More often, though, it works. Sim's world -- like our own -- is a world of semi-illiterate people. In that world, small books with mixed pictures and text are simply called "reads."

Sim writes "reads." So, he would argue, did F. Scott Fitzgerald, Oscar Wilde, and Ernest Hemingway, all of whom appeear in earlier chapters of Cerebus. And in comparing himself to, appreciating, and in some cases brutally critiquing these writers (he dismisses Hemingway, in particular, as a mere "typist.") Sim is reminding us of a simple, unavoidable truth: it's not the number of words per page that makes a great writer great. It's what those words are, and how they are used. The division of texts into "comic book" and "novel" is not, primarily, a literary distinction. It is a marketing distinction, and an indication of the seriousness the reader chooses to assign to the text.

Latter Days is worthy of being treated seriously. As in all his later works, Sim chooses an author and deconstructs his work through the eyes of his characters. The author in question this time around is: God. Well, if you believe that God wrote the Bible, that is, since that's the text Cerebus is analyzing (having been Pope once, Cerebus is more qualified than most to be able to opine on scripture). I don't want to reveal too much about the plot of Latter Days, but you can infer a bit from its guest appearances, which include The Three Stooges, Woody Allen, and the films of Bergman and Fellini. One of the "in-jokes" that works better than most is Cerebus's obsession with a comic book called The Rabbi ("Cerebus knew it was great literature, because it had lots of pople being killed in different ways.") which features a superhero with an unending (and hilarious) list of Secret Rabbi Powers ("Rabbi Hernioplasty Touch!" "Rabbi Dextrorotary Breath!" "Rabbi Fully Detachable Foreskin!").

Latter Days is thoroughly a modernist work, although the author would be repelled by that label. Nonetheless, it is: every panel of the work is aware of and obsessed with its form. Cerebus is maddening to read in serialized form, because Sim makes no concessions to the format. There is no guarantee that in any given 20 page span of the novel anything will "happen"; perhaps he will cinematically "pan" over an area for several pages, establishing the locale. Perhaps there will be a few empty black boxes, which are surrounded by paragraphs of dense prose. Frames are arranged in a variety of ways. Figures break out of their frame. The reader may need to rotate the book in order to read for several pages. Another example: in Latter Days, towards the end, we are shown a long, seemingly endless pastiche of panels which have no narrative connection to the text at all. Intentionally. The author is poking fun at the reader: "Don't you wish I'd stop all this boring writing and thinking and just show you more pretty pictures?" he seems to be saying. Like much other modernist art, Cerebus makes you work. It is no exaggeration to say that Sim has expanded the idiom of mixed-text-and-pictures the way Joyce expanded the idiom of the modern novel. His work is that revolutionary.

Lastly, no discussion of Sim and his work is complete without at least some reference to his misogynism, perhaps the biggest piece of baggage he took away from his divorce. Sim hates when people label him misogynist, or theorize about why he went over the edge the way he did, but given that he has written entire books discussing how various writers' personal lives influenced their writing I feel quite guilt-free labeling him. His incomprehension of and disgust for women is, indeed, odious, and quite on display here.

Which goes to show you: someone can write well and still be a raving lunatic. Sometimes, although thankfully not always, the two are related.

So with respect to the bee he has in his bonnet about women being the anticreative force in the universe, a force which is opposed to the creative male principle, yet seeks a "merged permanence" in which it will absorb and destroy the male essence, we can say confidently: Sim is crazy. He's not eccentric, he's not odd, he's crazy. This is a man who speaks his own language with the confidence of the someone who thinks deeply about everything except his own prejudices: of course "God" and "YHWH" are different -- but real! -- entites. Of course YHWH is the feminine principle, and is thus sneaky and untrustworthy. Of course God created Freud to cause World War II to cause the sacrifice of millions of Jews to pay for the blood debt they incurred.

Back in 1990, I interviewed Sim for a radio show; I just found the digital audio tape of the interview not too long ago. In the interview, my co-host Steve Peters, asked him "So, how did the divorce from your wife and business partner Dani influence your work?" At the time, I was mortified -- I practically made throat cutting motions at Steve when he started asking the question, not wanting to embarrass the artist. Now, given the uglier parts of the work (which to be fair, hadn't been published at that point) I wish I'd had the desire to pursue that question, rather than avoiding it.

Arguing with Sim is, pretty much, like arguing with Ralph Nader -- both are convinced not only of the rightness of their cause (who isn't?) but that such rightness is self evident, and that therefore anyone who claims to not see it is either lying, evil, or brain damaged. I guess I'd fall under "evil" -- I understand the arguments that Sim is making very precisely, because I've seen so many variations of them from delusionals of different stripes. Only the persecuting "them" differs between stories. Sim is a fruitcake. A nutbar. He's crazy.

With that said, I can also say: so what? Latter Days, taken in isolation, is the best thing Sim has ever written. Taken as a single chapter of the Cerebus project, it is unparalleled. Put in context, it is thought provoking and more evidence of his continued development as a serious writer. I read an author's work when I find his style and subject compelling and visionary, even if I disagree with him. I disagree with Sim on a lot of things. But Cerebus is both compelling and visionary, and I am richer for having read it.

Additional Resources

Posted by peterb at 04:25 PM | Comments (1)

July 22, 2004

The Tour De France, a Primer

by psu

Now that we're more than two weeks into this year's race, I thought I'd write a short primer on the basics of what is going on in the race so you all can keep it in mind for next year.

I know I should have done this before, but I was busy. Sue me.

The Tour De France is a three week race organized into stages. Each stage goes from a start point to an end point. The position of the riders in the overall classification of the race is computed by the cumulative time they take to finish each stage. In addition, there are various points in the race where a rider can pick up "time bonuses" of a few seconds which reduce the total time for that rider for that stage.

There are three major types of stages:

1. Road stages: the riders all start at once and the time is measured from there until the end line.

2. Individual Time Trial: the riders start in intervals and must ride alone. The total time from the start to the end is the time for that rider for the stage.

3. Team Time Trial: the teams start in intervals, must bring five riders to the end line, and every rider gets the time of the fifth rider across the line.

Sometimes the ITT is on flat land. Sometimes it is uphill (like yesterday's stage).

The leader of the overall wears the Yellow Jersey so you can pick him out easily. In addition, there are several sub-races going on for other jersies:

1. The Green Jersey: this is given out to the rider who gets the most "sprint points". You get these by finishing each stage close to the front and also at various intermediate towns in flat stages. Generally sprinters go after this jersey.

2. The Polka-dot Jersey: this is given to the rider with the most "mountain points". You get these by being the first over the hills.

3. White Jersey: best time for a young rider.

That's basically it. To make sense of each stage, you have to know what the goals of the teams are and some basics about tactics. Day by day, the main things you need to understand about bike racing tactics can be summed up in two sentences:

- You do less work drafting.

- It's hard to chase people down alone.

Examples: When the long breakaway gets caught at the end for the bunch sprint, it's because the big group could share the work in the wind better than the small breakaway. Similarly, if you have two people on the same team in a break, they can trade turns jumping off the front of the group and forcing the group to chase them down. This gets the group tired, giving the pair on the same team a better chance to win. Note that in an earlier stage of this year's race, the Euskatel team completely botched this tactic when they had two guys in the final break and let victory slip away from them.

If you keep these things in mind, and watch what Lance Armstrong's team does, you'll note that they have been almost perfect tactically:

- Over the flat roads, they protect Lance and keep him near the front and always behind someone else doing the work. He doesn't have to waste any more energy than necessary to get to the end of the day.

- Over the mountains, they keep riders with him in every important group over all the big hills until he rides alone to victory at the end. Lance was never alone and therefore never at a disadvantage.

- They completely dominated the team time trial.

Now, to win the race, Lance still has to be among the best climbers in the race and among the best time trial riders in the race, but having the awesome team around him certainly makes his job easier.

Next time: another short bit on what goes on in the various stages day by day.

Posted by psu at 10:00 AM | Comments (2)

July 21, 2004

The Problem with Data that is Meta

by psu

Talk to geeks the world over, and they will wax lyrical about all the ways in which meta-data will save the world.

It will make your disk searchable.

It will provide a semantic framework for WWW content.

It will allow tools from different vendors to manage your workflow and asset files.

It can form the basis for archiving your digital life.

Sadly, it's all a lie.

The problem here is that by its nature, the data that is meta is still data, and therefore it is subject to all the same problems that the original data had in the first place:

- Everyone has to agree on a schema.

- Meta-data will evolve but the tools you have to manage it will not.

- Vendors with power will try and use meta-data as a leverage point to lock you into their tools, rather than as an interface point to allow mulitple tools to interoperate.

and so on.

An example of this problem that is near and dear to my heart is meta-data related to digital photographs. There are multiple standards (EXIF, IPTC, XMP) and multiple standards for embedding those standards into various standard file formats like JPEG. In addition, different camera vendors embed the data differently in their various proprietary formats (Nikon NEF files, for example). I had a workflow set up between Photoshop and iView that was working great for me mostly because Photoshop and iView agreed to write the EXIF data in the same place in all their files. This is something of a minor miracle, actually, as I was soon to find out.

Then I got Photoshop CS. One of the new features in the Adobe CS line is a completely new standard (XMP) for embedding meta-data into files. Adobe trumpets this new standard as a new extensible base for all your meta-data needs now and in the future. All I know is that iView can't read the new data, so my entire workflow is shot, and I downgraded back to Photoshop 7 until I can find another solution.

Of course, if I were to just use the Adobe tools for this, I'd be all set, since presumably they all know how to read the same formats.

In other words, Adobe changed the schema, didn't give people time to evolve the tools, and thus used the new meta-data standard to try and lock me in to their stuff, even though their file browser software blows.

Hallelujah and Amen.

Posted by psu at 12:27 AM | Comments (4)

July 20, 2004

The Spice Must Flow

by peterb

If there's one annoying trend that has permeated Asian cuisine as prepared and served throughout America, it's that I can hardly find a place where a server doesn't ask me "How spicy? 1 to 10?"

You don't ask me how much salt I want in the dishes that come out from the kitchen. You don't ask how much sugar you should put in the cheesecake. You don't offer me a choice of an omelette fried in yummy butter, healthy duck fat, or disgusting institutionalized margarine. Why do you ask about spice? A simple reason: people are stupid.

People, in this case, are not the cooks, but the customers. I actually pity the restaurant owners, serving staff, and chefs. There's no doubt that diners have wildly differing ideas of what "spicy" means. Here in Middle America, for example, put some black pepper on something and fiftysomething women will start having hot flashes and asking for more water to soothe their scalded tongues. So it's clear that the "1 to 10?" question has evolved as self-defense by restaurants that have had too many dishes sent back by people who think they like spicy food, but secretly don't. I understand why restaurants ask this question. I just don't like it.

The best -- by which I mean worst -- part of the "1 to 10?" scale is that it is illusory. The chef isn't going to say "Oh! A 6! I should add 3.5 grams of illegal szechuan peppers to this dish as I finish it" (nor should she). Rather, any response is going to be channeled into one of three categories. Here are the rules.

  • If the customer gives any number lower than 6, no spice at all.
  • If the customer answers 7 to 9, add some pepper.
  • If the customer says "10" then you can make it as spicy as it's supposed to be.

So, there are really only three levels. Then we apply the hidden rules to the customer's stated preference to determine which of the three levels they fall into.

  • If the customer is female, subtract 3 from whatever they say.
  • If this is an Indian restaurant and the customer is white, subtract 7 from whatever they say.
  • If this is a Chinese restaurant and the customer says "10" on a dish that's not really supposed to be that spicy, throw in enough hot pepper to kill a horse and destroy their taste buds, as punishment for being stupid. The dish will taste awful, but the dope eating it won't care.
  • If the customer is a regular, don't ask them. Just give them the dish the way it's supposed to be.

You'd think "Aha! I can just ask for the dish the way it's supposed to be from the get-go," but it turns out that in practice this usually doesn't work. You can get away with it if you're actually speaking to the person preparing your food. If you try it on a server -- at least, one that doesn't know you -- you're just going to confuse and upset them, and they'll wish you'd stop being difficult and just say a lousy number already.

If I'm eating out, it's in large part because I don't want to cook. I want to put my trust in you, the chef, to deliver a dish that represents your vision of what the dish should be like. So on a scale of 1 to 10, I want the dish to be spiced how you think it should be. Don't ask me. That's a cop-out.

If it really doesn't matter how the dish should be spiced, and it's reasonable for the customer to make the decision, then let her add her own at the table. If that's not practical then, well, maybe you should consider taking that dish off the menu. If you think a dish served "as it should be" is going to be too spicy for some diners, then just make sure the serving staff gives them adequate warning. If the customer plows ahead and is sad because their spicy dish is spicy, it's their own fault. Would you accept criticism from a vegetarian who was upset that their steak contained meat?

Next week: people who ask for their steaks "well done," and why they must be destroyed.

Posted by peterb at 04:54 PM | Comments (4)

July 19, 2004

Overheard At Enrico's

by peterb

Photo courtesy Peter Su

Enrico's Biscotti is one of the treasures of our town, and is surrounded by legends, myths, and stories, passed on by word of mouth from person to person. When they stopped selling daily lunch in the back room -- a converted auto garage -- in preparation for opening their trendier Shadyside location, I was depressed for a week. Recently, the back room opened again for lunch on Saturdays. With visions of beans and greens dancing in my head, or perhaps a simple pizza margherita, I stopped in last weekend, and now have a story to relate.

We were sitting next to a woman from California who was eating her way across the USA; in fact, she had with her a copy of Jane and Michael Stern's Eat Your Way Across the USA, and Enrico's was listed as a must-stop destination. Larry, the owner, saw the book and stopped to chat. He told her a story. This is the story he told.

"So, I'm in the kitchen slicing biscotti and this guy walks in and says 'Are you the owner?' And of course, my reaction is 'Uh oh, something is wrong.' So I slowly put the knife down and he says 'I'm Michael Stern,' and just then my hand slips and I slice my thumb half open. 'Michael Stern? I'm such a huge fan of yours!' And now I'm worried that he's going to think I'm a dork who can't even handle a knife so I just kind of cross my arm and tuck my thumb up under the other arm and try to act casual, you know? Like I'm not bleeding all over the place. So we talk for a while about the business, and about the biscotti, and everything, and we set up a meeting for that evening so he can interview me on tape for The Splendid Table."

"So he leaves, and I take my thumb out from under my arm and scream, and my apron is sopping wet with blood. Apparently, while I was just acting as if nothing happened, blood was pouring out of my thumb. He had to have noticed. Apart from bleeding a lot it was actually OK -- after I bandaged it up it healed just fine"

"That night he comes by and we do the interview, and I show him the place, and we're having a great time -- he's just a great guy, a fabulous guy -- and we're finishing up, and he's about to leave, and he looks at me and kind of smiles and says 'So, how's that thumb?' So then I had to explain how I didn't want to look like a complete dork, and we both had a good laugh about it."

If you're in Pittsburgh, you owe it to yourself to visit Enrico's. On a cold winter morning, the smell of biscotti and macaroons that drifts onto Penn Avenue from their front door is like a message from another, better world. Their pizza -- traditional Napolitan style -- is thin and understated and fantastic. Their "big fat salad" is a full meal without being offensively built. Their soups, stews, and quiches are hearty and simple. This is peasant food from a magical land where the peasants eat better than everyone else. You can eat at Enrico's every day and never get bored.

Additional Resources

Posted by peterb at 05:20 PM | Comments (1)

July 17, 2004

California and Me, a Short Interlude

by psu

I grew up in Massachusetts, and now have lived in Pittsburgh for about the last ten years. Because I work in the computer industry I am forced to travel to California against my will. I have spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley and even a summer in Pasadena.

All this time in CA has lead to one inevitable conclusion: On balance, I hate the place.

Now, don't get me wrong. Visiting San Francisco is great fun, and we do it often to escape the relative lack of real Chinese Food in Pittsburgh. But aside from the better food environment, there is almost nothing to recommend this area as a place to live day to day. Let us review.

1. The weather sucks.

Sure, it's warm enough to allow one to bicycle almost year round. But, the oppressive non-changing dry boring blandness of it all just sucks my soul out of my eyeballs. Apologists for the area will always bombard you with some pithy remark like "oh, yeah, you must love freezing your ass off all the time in the winter", which completely misses the point. The weather, while inducing suffering, is a reminder that time passes, that the world changes, that summer is different from winter in more ways than just being dryer, that there is a cycle to things. I find this to be reassuring. When I'm in CA, it's like time stands still and has no meaning. I hate it.

2. The cars suck.

The entire car oriented culture is poisonous. Everything is sprawled out along thousands of square miles of paved oblivion. You can't walk anywhere. You can't park anywhere. Today, just to get to the airport cost $100 in a cab. This is ludicrous.

3. The traffic sucks.

I was going to meet my friend at Google for dinner tonight. He calls me at 6:30 (an hour and a half late) saying that he is on the way home. It takes him 45 minutes to get home because of "traffic". Google is in Mountain View. My friend lives in Mountain View. How can it take 45 minutes to get home because of traffic when the longest possible distance that he just drove is a few miles?

4. The housing sucks.

$500,000 buys you a hovel with a tin roof. The only way to buy a decent house is to win the stock options lottery at a place like google and pray you can cash out fast enough.

5. The attitude sucks.

If I get that puzzled look from one more CA fan-boy asking me why any rational person would willingly live on the east coast, I'll punch his teeth out. If you like your little car infested hell hole, then that's fine. Just don't expect me to understand it.

6. The culture sucks.

California encapsulates all the contradictions of modern life in the U.S. In San Francisco, homeless people sleep outside of Nordstrom. The weather is warm enough to cycle and walk outside all year, so everyone drives everywhere. The place is a hot bed of various progressive civil liberties paranoia and identity politics, but you can't smoke in bars. The area has some of the best food and cooking in the world, but the paranoia about the latest diet fads and the complete obsession over minutae like grass fed free range organic vegetables is just exhausting. Finally, the intellectual environment is best described as my friend Corey put it: "the vapid crystal-rubbing health-food and high-colonic culture."

Posted by psu at 12:16 AM | Comments (17)

July 14, 2004

Gmail Invites: Going for a Song

by peterb

It makes me somewhat disgusted that people are still trying to profit off of gmail invites, "selling" them on craigslist and elsewhere for $5, $10, etc. I mean, how desperate do you have to be? What happened? Did the blood bank stop accepting your plasma? Did your attempt to corner the suburban lemonade stand market fail when some sixth graders moved in on your turf? Did no one join your Ponzi scheme?

So the other day, in a fit of pique, having already invited all of my friends that I knew wanted in, I offered to give my gmail invites away for free to the first takers on craigslist; all I asked for was that they tell me what their favorite Pittsburgh restaurant was, and why. I had about 8 takers, and all my invites (and those of some helpful friends -- thanks!) were slorped up in no time. It was a good deed, and I feel good about it.

So, why not expand it? I'm out of invites right now, but more will undoubtedly come in. Thus: if you'd like a gmail invite, add a comment below saying so, and I'll take responsibility for trying to get you one. I can't make any guarantees, obviously, but I'll give it my best effort.

Since this weblog is subtitled creativity x technology it's appropriate to attach a little proviso to this to make it more fun. Requests will be given priority if they come with a short yet interesting story. Some suggested topics (which, not coincidentally, are among the topics that I concern myself with on this site) might include:

  • The best meal you've had in an unlikely place.

  • A nostalgic reminiscence about an obsolete video or computer game.

  • A story about a software development nightmare and/or the people who were involved with it.

  • Something interesting and unusual about the Pittsburgh region.

As I say, these are just suggestions -- if something else is on your mind, feel free to lay it out there as your contribution.

Lastly, if you already have a gmail account, feel free to contribute a story if you like, just to show people how it's done. If you're interested in donating invitations to the cause, just drop me a line at the address gmail-invite at tgr dot com and let me know how many creative contributors you'd like to sponsor; I'll gate their requests to you as they come in.

Posted by peterb at 08:10 PM | Comments (7)

July 13, 2004

Famous Last Words

by peterb

If you're a software developer for long enough, you'll hear certain things throughout your career that almost never, ever, ever turn out to be true. Here's a partial list of some of the more popular lies and simply wrong things you'll hear.

  • "Every bug fixed will have a unit test demonstrating that it is fixed."
  • "All APIs will have complete and accurate documentation."
  • "We always write a complete spec before beginning the implementation."
  • "The feature set is frozen now."
  • "100% backward compatible!"
  • "We have included time for writing tests and debugging on the schedule."
  • "If the code you're working on has some completely minor and unimportant detail that I personally disagree with, everything will completely break and the world will end."
  • "Remember that time six months ago when I said it would break the world if you did it your way and you gave in and did it my way? We just got a bug from a customer, and it turns out we should have done it your way in the first place. Can you rewrite it that way by Friday? Thanks!"
  • "Yes, I tested that code, which doesn't compile, before I submitted it."
  • "Purify is too expensive."
  • "This error is an unlikely corner case, so we don't have to handle it."

....any others? Add yours below. It's also worth mentioning the following somewhat related topbot lists: worst commenting practices, new Windows API features, and the ever-popular (and accurate!) all software sucks list.

Posted by peterb at 07:25 PM | Comments (9)

July 12, 2004

Folding Shirts

by peterb
Cloth folding

Om mani padme hum

Here's a short movie -- not by me -- on how to fold a shirt to such a perfect, crisp shape that its very existence provides nearly irrefutable evidence of the presence of a pantheon of benevolent and all-knowing Clothing Gods. I find it compelling. I find it hypnotic. I can't stop watching it, over and over again, hoping to absorb how to perform such household magic. I have taken my shirt off in the kitchen. I have sat, and emulated the master. And I am here to tell you it is not a trick of the light; it is not a special effect; it is not clever editing. It really works.

The language being spoken is Japanese. Here's a rough translation:

"Start by laying the Tshirt flat and sideways in front of you, neck opening to your right. Find the centerpoint on the far side and pinch it with your left hand, about two inches in from the far edge.

With your right hand, draw a line from your left hand to the right edge of the tshirt, parallel to the edge of the shirt. This brings your right hand to the neck-opening side of the shirt. Grasp the edge with your right hand.

Now, while maintaining your grip, cross your right hand over your left, towards the opposite (waist-opening) end of the tshirt. Maintain the same imaginary line you've been working on (about two inches from the far edge of the shirt, parallel to the edge) and add the new edge to the grasp of your right hand.

This is where the magic happens. Simply uncross your hands and extend them in front of you, lifting the shirt perpendicular to the floor. Complete the fold by letting the loose arm hole drop to the floor and folding the shirt in half over it!

Breathe deeply and contemplate the terrible beauty you have wrought."

OK, that last line wasn't actually part of the voiceover. But it should be.

Posted by peterb at 07:37 PM | Comments (4)

July 11, 2004


by goob

The land that Pittsburgh sits on is a rumpled place, a piece of rough cloth thrown carelessly on the table. A very long time ago, this place was a flat plain made up of the debris washed down from the left side of the decaying Appalachian mountains. This grand flatness was then itself carved up and out by rivers and kills and everything in between, leaving a landscape of close valleys and hills of oddly similar height.

One effect of this is a habit of running major transportation routes along the river; it is really only there where it stays flat for any great while. This becomes a particular problem where the hills curl up next to the water, squeezing road and rail together on the thin strip of land between the rock and the river. The land becomes precious, and the rights of way become thin and jealously guarded. The decades-long question of the fate of bottom four miles of Route 28 is an excellent example of the pressures produced by the situation. It is the topology that traps us on roadways that become ever less capable, unable to expand to meet unforeseen legions of the poor souls who clog the choke points with the weight of their presence every morning at eight and every evening at five.

The underside to this is that the topology also gives itself over to secrets. There are inconvenient sides to hills, I suppose, where it is difficult to reach, or difficult to run services to, or the possible property development is just too thin to be worth it for the steepness. Where it would not be worth it to do whatever else, they run roads. An unknown road swings a careless ess curve through tall grasses, a stone's throw from the congestion of a major local roadway but so hidden as to not be there. A middle-class neighborhood of trim homes gives up its lane to the adjacent city park, which consumes the road and compresses it with leaves and shade. A road leaps from another neighborhood and tumbles down a hill, back and forth, until it reaches the smoothness of the valley below, making short scary work of an otherwise long, looping route. These are some of the ones I know about, roads so hidden and lost they turn the world to forest, or jungle, or sky. I cannot tell you where they are, of course.

There are other shortcuts that I could not reveal if I wanted to. I see them in the distance when sitting in an idling car behind a sea of brake lights. I only see glances of them, and always of the middle: I never see where they begin or end. I do not know where the drivers on those paths go. I do not know what led them to find those roads, that first time.

Posted by goob at 01:06 PM | Comments (0)

July 09, 2004

Mistakes Were Made

by peterb

The walnut cake movie is the first movie I've made in a while. It was made without any planning or forethought. Every time I make a movie, I screw it up in new and interesting ways. Here's what I learned from my screwups this time:

  • I'm deeply unhappy with the voiceover. Without a real mic, I was reduced into shouting into the lousy condenser mic in my laptop, which sounds about as bad as you'd expect.
  • FCP's voiceover tool is simultaneously nice and lame. It's nice in that it seamlessly supports multiple takes and gives sound cues and lets you synchronize voice to video. However, for me, this led to a stilted and unnatural reading. If I could do it all over again, I'd sit down with the script and make someone else do the actual recording, do 10 takes without syncing to the video at all, and then do any necessary sync completely in post. In other words: I think I'd have been better off not using the voiceover tool at all.
  • I wanted to use the audio mixer to set audio keyframes so that the background noise faded in and out depending on whether narration was occurring or not. In order to set audio keyframes, you have to click the completely unlabeled "record audio keyframes" button. The button has two states, and you can't tell by looking at it whether it is on or off. You just have to try moving the sliders and then go back to your clip and see if any keyframes magically appeared.
  • Even with the Canon Optura Pi's optical image stabilization, the picture was unacceptably shaky. A tripod wasn't practical under the circumstances, but I still wish I had had one.
  • When I first visited the shop, the cashier was a personable, photogenic young lady who was excited to talk in enthusiastic detail about the product, its history, its manufacture, the customers, and so on. When I came back the next day with the camcorder, the only person available to talk was the polite but much less communicative owner. This is the standard photography lesson of "If you don't have your camera, you can't make the shot." There's really nothing you can do about this if you're not willing to have a camera with you at all times, but I still feel like complaining about it.
  • Maybe I just haven't learned the right shortcuts yet, but I somewhat loathe the seemingly random elements of Final Cut Pro's user interface. Here's one example: Line up two clips next to each other. Grab an audio crossfade transition and try to layer it across adjacent audio clips. Sometimes the transition straddles both clips (which is almost always what you want). Sometimes it will only 'fit' on one or the other clip. In particularly pathological cases, it will straddle neither, but will drop itself between the two clips as a 0-length element, mocking you. I'm sure there's some sophisticated explanation for this behavior, but the UI sure doesn't make it apparent why these different behaviors occur.
  • The "zoom" effect you get by stretching or compressing the scroll bar in the sequence window (which gives you a finer or coarser view of the sequence by stretching or compressing time) is the single worst UI element I've seen on a Mac. I have never once succesfully managed to reach my target 'view' without having to stop, readjust the scroll bar to recenter, and start over again. And of course, I use it anyway because you pretty much need to to do fine-grained editing.
  • I want a hotkey shortcut that says "take this clip I've selected and move it left in my sequence's timeline until it bumps up against something, and then stop." That's one of the single most common tasks I currently do by hand (and it generally involves wrestling with the awful time-dilation scroll bar) Does that exist? I haven't found it yet.
Although lots went wrong here, I'm optimistic about the format. I'm a big believer in tiny yet good things. Perhaps there will be more 2 minute movies about food in my future.

Posted by peterb at 11:35 PM | Comments (4)

July 08, 2004

À la recherche du temps à noix

by peterb
hodo kwaja

hodo kwaja

Hodo kwaja is a Korean filled sweet that is shaped like a walnut. In the mid-1930s, a Korean baker (one Mr. Cho Kwigum) was apparently contemplating a madeleine and said to himself "You know what would be great? It would be great if there was stuff inside of this thing." He gave it a distinctive walnut shaped mold, chose a popular filling, and named it, and Korea has loved them ever since. We found a coffee shop (descriptively named "Hodo Kwaja") in Little Korea in Toronto that sold hodo kwaja, madeleines, hot coffee, and nothing else.

But I don't just want to tell you about Hodo Kwaja, I want to show them to you. So I made a short film about them. You can view it in low (1 Mb), medium (3 Mb), or high (7.5 Mb) resolution versions. If you've the bandwidth to spare, get the high res version. (Since all video plugins for every browser are stupid and don't allow resizing, best results will be obtained by right-clicking the link and choosing "save", then watching in a standalone video program where you can make it full screen. But just clicking should work too. The movies are in Quicktime format; if you click on the links and don't get a movie you can install the free Quicktime player and try again.)

The walnuts are filled with either a red bean paste or a mixture of mashed potatoes and walnuts or almonds. The dough is a basic madeleine dough like you or I would make at home. The mashed potato hodo have a cloying maple flavor that makes them taste a little too breakfasty for me. I preferred the red bean versions, but the rule here is "get whichever ones are still hot." Their coffee is great.


The Machine

The most impressive part of the experience, for me, was the robotic hodo kwaja assembler, which inspired me to come back the next day with the video camera and make this short film. I want one of those machines for my living room. Oh yes. Oh yes, I do.

Tomorrow I'll be talking about the process of making this video and some neat things I learned about Final Cut Pro, but for now, just enjoy the video. And, if you're hungry, make yourself some madeleines.

Additional Resources

  • Hodo Kwaja can be found at 656 Bloor St. West in the Annex district of Toronto.

  • For madeleines, I like the Joy of Cooking recipe, and also this Food Network recipe. Any madeleine recipe that begins by telling me to prepare a bain-marie I discard as being too full of itself.

  • Remember, you can't be a pretentious literary type if you don't pretend you've actually read Swann's Way. (Practice this helpful phrase: "Of course, it's much more powerful in the original French.")

Posted by peterb at 08:37 PM | Comments (2)

July 07, 2004


by peterb


The mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana L) is perhaps the most treasured of the tropical fruits, and virtually unknown in the US except among those fortunate enough to travel abroad. They're not legal to import to the US because of concerns about fruit fly infestations; but you can find them on the street markets in Chinatown in Toronto.

It's an exceptionally attractive fruit, with a thick, royal purple skin and a tomato-like green stem up top. Cut it open and you'll find white flesh, ivory-white, with almost an iridescent pearl like sheen. Foodies love to crow about the indescribably orgasmic flavor which is incomparable to anything else in the world, but they're just being drama queens: mangosteens have a papaya and grape sweetness, with a refreshing lime-like acidity. They are juicy enough to make a copious supply of napkins a requirement.


Mangosteens at market

There's mystique surrounding the mangosteen, and it's hard to separate fact from fiction. Folklore holds that Queen Victoria offered a knighthood (unclaimed) to anyone who could bring her back an unspoiled one to try from the Indies. It also holds that it was her favorite fruit, a somewhat incompatible notion. Perhaps derived from this story is the unofficial designation of mangosteen as the "Queen of Fruits," which sounds great until you realize that the smells-like-vomit durian is the "King of Fruits."

I obtained my mangosteens from one of the Vietnamese open-air markets on Spadina near Dundas. While there, I also picked up some rambutan, sugar apples, rose apples, and passed on the dragon fruit and fresh lychees. They are conveniently located near many shops where you can get a Saigon sandwich. Basically, this is where you go when you die, if you're good.

I'm always surprised that more of these hyperperishable tropical fruits don't end up in preserved (or preserves) form; although of course that does violence to the fruit in its fresh form, it's better than nothing.

So, can someone obtain a cashew apple for me? I'll trade you this here mangosteen...

Additional Resources

Posted by peterb at 07:02 PM | Comments (0)

July 06, 2004

Offal in Koreatown

by peterb

There's not really very much that I won't eat, or at least that I won't try. This weekend in Toronto I got to cross one of the long-standing entries off the list of foods I have knowingly ducked: pig intestines, which we call "chitterlings" or "chitlins" around these parts.

Offal is not generally a really big part of the standard American diet. Growing up in the Jewish tradition I probably had more than your average kid -- Grandma's chopped liver was great, and I loved stuffed derma and kishka (which are basically simple, salty chicken fat sausages). The textures of some of the organ meats, though, make them hard to deal with if you're not used to them. Tripe, in particular, I ducked for years; I even avoided it while in Oporto, where it is the city's specialty dish. It just looks evil, nasty, rippled and spongy. I'd see a plate of tripe and imagine my teeth sinking in and then never being able to get them out. I imagined they'd find me, dead of starvation at the dinner table, a mass of tripe tangled around my teeth. When I finally broke down and tried it, in a bowl of Phó, I enjoyed it -- the chewy, springy texture of the tripe was a nice counterpoint to the soft noodles and the crunchy bean sprouts. I still wouldn't order a big pile of tripe to eat all by itself, but I was pleased to find a dish where I could enjoy it.

Korea House, on Bloor in the middle of the Annex neighborhood, described "soondae" as "pig intestine and sausage," and it was available in a number of different dishes. You can call soondae "blood sausage," but that doesn't really get the point across. Spanish morçilla, for example, is technically a blood sausage, but you don't really experience the casing as an essential component of the dish, the way you do with soondae. Remembering my phó experience, I decided that this would be where I'd get chitterlings off of my "will not try" list. Korean soups are notoriously spicy and flavorful, and I figured that if anything could make pig intestine edible, hot pepper could; armed with that knowledge, I ordered soondae guk, a spicy stew. The waitress looked at me suspiciously. "You know soondae guk?" I nodded confidently, hoping to project the attitude that I eat it all the time. She padded away and, soon brought, along with the inevitable procession of small side dishes, my bowl of spicy offal soup.

Pig intestine is like tripe, only more so. In terms of texture it is rubbery and chewy, just like tripe, but also a bit thicker, so eating it is a bit like eating gristle. The taste was very neutral, and not offensive at all -- basically, it just tasted like the spicy pepper broth it was in. What was disconcerting was the smell. I was prepared for it to smell like rotting flesh, or to have a sulfurous odor, or a sickly sweet bloody odor. It smelled like none of these things.

It smelled like vulcanized rubber. It smelled like a bicycle tire.

It didn't smell somewhat like a bicycle tire. It wasn't redolent of a bicycle tire. It didn't suggest the odor of a bicycle tire. If you rubbed a bicycle tire with sandpaper and held it up to your nose, that's exactly what this smelled like.

So that's not so offensive that one loses one's lunch and stops eating, especially since, as I said, it felt and tasted just fine. It was just confusing. I continued eating the soup with a quizzical expression on my face. The sausage in the soup tasted more like I expected. It was a livery, sulfurous mass that contained mysterious chunks and bubbles of nameless flesh that we in wealthier countries typically throw away when cooking for people we love. Since I've eaten tapas in Madrid, where they pride themselves in discovering new and innovative uses for body parts previously believed to be indigestible, this was nothing terribly new. (I have a fantasy of someday encountering a tapas bar that has figured out a way to serve fried fur and hair, chased by a jigger of sweet homemade vermouth). The sausage was loose and fell apart in the soup into its component lumps, so eating was an exercise in trying to balance a lump of sausage meat with a curl of intestine, along with some spicy liquid and perhaps an onion or two in the spoon, and slorping it down in one mouthful.


"Chitty the Chitterling"

It was pretty good. There's enough other things on the typical Korean menu that I can't see myself gravitating to the soon dae guk every time, but if you're looking to overcome your fear of chitterlings and try something new, this is a good way to do it.

Additional Resources

  • Byungchun Soondae is a Korean company that manufactures soondae commercially. Their page has an interesting and informative description of the process. I have dubbed their mascot "Chitty the Chitterling"

Posted by peterb at 06:38 PM | Comments (2)

July 03, 2004


by peterb

Marcus Gronholm's co-driver Timo Rautiainen was injured when a metal bar lying in the road pierced the undercarriage of their Peugeot 307, and the seat, and Timo's backside. It was at this moment that viewers everywhere learned that it is entirely possible to rattle off driving directions in Finnish while, at the same time, cursing in English.

Gronholm, understandably, stopped the car to make sure that Timo was OK. When interviewed after the stage, he described it thusly:

"We had to stop because some stone came up through Timo's, uh, seat." Long pause. "Up into the ass of Timo." Another pause. "So we stop."

The Finn illustrated his point with an upward thrust of his fist.

Impressively, Gronholm and Rautiainen still managed to come in second. Timo's ass is said to be healing well.

Posted by peterb at 05:58 AM | Comments (0)

July 02, 2004

There is Magic Yet In Pittsburgh

by goob

Find a map of Pittsburgh and spread it out upon the table. Make it a good map, detailed enough to show all of the actual streets downtown and surrounding, perhaps even the paper ones that fly off into space above the rivers or worm their old ways under newer steel and stone. Put your finger on the Monongahela river where it reforms itself into half of the Ohio. Begin to drag it east, up the channel. Put ripples in the water with your nail past the Fort Pitt bridge, past the Smithfield Street Bridge, past the little train bridge that carries the T and holds a name that no one remembers (Panhandle Railroad Bridge). Let your finger feel the draw of that mighty river, navigable in entire, and keep pushing east.

Stop at that next bridge running over the river, and investigate. This is the Liberty Bridge, carrying cars to and from the Liberty Tubes (tunnels) to the south and a tangled mess of road and ramp to the north, which I will not attempt to explain, even with the help of the map. Put your finger on the bridge, now, and trace it south (please remain in the western lanes) to where the roadway runs to tunnel and dips beneath Mount Washington.

Do not enter the tunnel with your finger; it is not likely to fit, and trouble in the tunnels snarls traffic for miles upon miles. Even if your finger fit, you would be forced by local custom to slow to ten miles per hour, and after five minutes of following that dotted line on the map on the coffee table your back will begin to hurt. Instead, at the southern end of the bridge, turn west. This will also be a turning upward, as you are now scouring a nail-plowed furrow in the surface of McArdle Roadway.

This road climbs as it clings to the side of Mount Washington, offering access to the oohs and aahs of the downtown Pittsburgh view at the top. It is worth the trip up it to walk along the top of Mount Washington, taking in sights and looking down on birds. I would recommend to take your finger there on a summer afternoon when the hillside trees are in full leaf, driving up the roadway and moving through a corridor of green and outcrop, with occasional view of the deepening city peeking through from the right.

Over this road passes one of Pittsburgh's two working Funiculars, the Monongahela Incline, on a steep thin track just below the tops of trees. If you are lucky on the way up, you will pass beneath the trackway just as one of the Incline's cars rumbles by above, going upways or down. It will spill into the space over the roadway as an invader, intruding from bygone years, an incongruity made more so by the quickness of its passing from view. You may see people on it, and they may see you, but there is no time to wave; a curt nod is what is possible, and all that is really required.

This trick does not work as well on the way down McArdle; I do not know why. This, also, is not a thing that can be planned. It happens or it does not. The only remaining difficulty is that your finger, heavy and massive and huge from the sky, would easily snap the tracks in two, should it try to pass there.

I say: take a car instead, and good luck.

Posted by goob at 03:36 PM | Comments (0)

July 01, 2004


by peterb

It was in a small auberge in the Dordogne, in the south-west of France, maybe forty-five minutes from the town of Villeneuve-sur-lot, where I encountered the perfect fried potatoes.

I was dining with my parents, my sister, and a somewhat vegetarian friend. I, of course, went straight for the foie gras over arugula, among other things, but my mother and sister got the crayfish, which came with pommes frittes. Jennifer, the vegetarian, picked at the fries and soon started wolfing them down. We all talked about them -- they were, everyone agreed, the best we'd ever had.

Jennifer knows no French; my mother and I have a little. So when Mom asked the proprietor how he made some incredibly good fries, I understood the response and Jennifer didn't: "Oh, that's simple. They taste good because we fry them in duck fat."

"What did he say?" asked Jennifer, and my mother and I, guided by some psychic link, practically shouted the same thing at the exact same time: "He says the oil is really hot!" Lubricated by this little white lie, dinner continued, with Jennifer able to enjoy the best fries in the world guilt-free.

So duck fat really one of the tastiest things you can fry with. I always keep some around. You can use it for just about any sort of high temperature frying -- anything you might use bacon fat for, use duck fat instead. The high heat needed for a good omelette will scorch plain butter, but just a dollop of duck fat mixed in will let you get that same butter much hotter without burning it (and, not incidentally, will make the omelette taste better).

The problem with duck fat is that you can't really find it on the shelf of your average supermarket. Even if you could, it wouldn't be fresh. The solution is obvious: go buy a duck.

There's a million ways under the sun to prepare duck, but I find the simplest is the best: slow-roast it. No sauces, no soy, nothing except duck and salt. The recipe from The Joy of Cooking is just fine.

Get a duck, between about 4 and 5 pounds. A frozen duck will have a noticeably inferior texture, so fresh if you can find it (or, if you can only find frozen, then you might consider doing something more intricate with a sauce to try to compensate for the texture). Preheat your oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove everything from inside the duck, and pull off the most egregious globs of fat off of the skin in the neck (don't worry about losing this -- you're going to have plenty left over). Using a sharp, thin skewer, pierce as many holes as you dare in the skin of the duck. The goal here is to give the subcutaneous fat somewhere to drain to -- in so doing, it will become crispy. Try not to pierce the actual flesh beneath the skin. I like to slip the skewer underneath the skin and kind of work it around horizontally. (Chinese chefs who make Peking duck will frequently use an electric bicycle pump to do this, just pumping compressed air under the skin of a tied fowl -- if you've got some other innovative way of accomplishing the task of "loosen the skin from the muscle beneath," have at it.)

Rub the duck all over, inside and out, with kosher salt. Place in your preheated oven on a rack breast-side down, for 3 hours. Every hour or so, poke a few more holes in the skin. After 3 hours, flip the duck breast side up, drain off the excess fat to a jar (which you'll refrigerate and save for use in cooking later) and turn the heat up to 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes. I usually then give the duck a 5 minute roast at 500 just to really crisp it up. Remove from the oven, set on a platter, cover, and let rest for 10 minutes.

Bon appetit!

Additional Resources

Posted by peterb at 07:39 PM | Comments (0)

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