January 31, 2005

Mediocrity Begins at Home

by peterb

There's no shame in bugs.

Really. In consumer-grade software, there are bugs. I wish it wasn't so, but it is so. I can't think of a product I've used in the past 20 years that hasn't had a bug or two.

There are a few different reactions to finding out that your product has a bug. One of those reactions is to say nothing at all. While this often displeases the peanut gallery, sometimes it's the wisest course. Another reaction is to acknowledge the bug and move on. "Oh man, you're right. That sucks. I hope we can get that fixed soon." I think that's usually a pretty good response, although it may give your lawyers a conniption fit.

Then there's what I have come, over the years, to think of as "The Linux Answer." That's the one where you blame the user for wanting to use the product in a way which exercises the bug.

User: "The kernel's interface for force unmounting the filesystem is broken, and it can't ever possibly work."
Developer: "Why are you trying to force unmount? You shouldn't try to use that API, even though it's documented and no bugs are filed against it."

User: "The performance of the threads implementation on your OS is an order of magnitude worse than the one on these other OSs when I run any app that uses a lot of threads."
Developer: "Threads are stupid. You should rewrite all your code."

It's not really fair anymore to call this "the Linux answer," because of course overzealous fans of any product sometimes have this sort of reaction when confronted with its shortcomings. As a developer, I find that I get possessive of the code I write. Someone will ask me how a component I've contributed to acts when given certain inputs, and I'll find myself saying "well, when we get this request, we apply these policies and then give this answer back to you." And then I'll stop, and listen to myself referring to the code I wrote in the first person, and have to smack myself in the head a few times.

I suspect that it's this sort of anthropomorphism of software that causes The Linux Answer. Some level of identification with your code is inevitable (it provides a convenient conversational framework, if nothing else). But when it reaches the point that you're willing to blame the user for criticizing your code (because the user is therefore criticizing you, which wounds your feelings) -- well, look. It's just code. It has bugs. Fixing the bugs is good. And you can't fix the bugs unless you know about them.

So the right thing to do when a user tells you about a bug is to thank her.

Posted by peterb at 12:12 AM | Comments (1)

January 28, 2005

Lazy Food

by psu

I like to cook but I am, by nature, a rather lazy person. This can be a problem at times, since good food is often labor intensive. Luckily, many of the best things you can make do not require your full attention during the making. So here are some easy recipes for great food that you can make while playing Halo.


Use a rice cooker. Set and forget. You can play Halo for 20 to 30 minutes while it cooks.

Coffee in a French Press

OK. This is barely a recipe, and you don't get to play Halo, but bear with me.

I like coffee, but making a really good drip or espresso or even moka pot shot is sometimes just too much cognitive effort. For these times, I do this

- Put two or three handfuls of beans in the grinder. Set to coarse.

- Grind it all.

- Dump in french press. I use one of the larger Bodum ones that hold around 8 cups of liquid.

- Add hot water. I fill it half way or two thirds of the way up.

Wait a while. Drink. The trick is to judge the amount of water you should put in by how many grounds you end up with, and don't let the grounds sit in the press too long. I like to put in way too much coffee but not have it sit in the water that long before pressing it.

I hear vaccum pots are also a nice lazy way to make coffee. They make me nervous about boiling the coffee too much.

The french press also lets you be really lazy and make good tea. And tea is even less work than coffee because you can steep it multiple times. This is good for when you are sick.

Homemade Chicken and Matzoh Ball Soup

I described this to my boss one day, and he thought it sounded like too much work. So I tried to cut it down a bit.

First, buy a two or three pound package of chicken wings. Then cut up 2 onions, 2 or 3 carrots, and 2 or 3 stalks of celery. Put all this in a pot, cover with water, add salt, pepper, and bay leaves. Turn the heat on until you get a simmer. Now play Halo for 3 or 4 hours. If you are industrious, you can saute the vegetables before adding the wings and the water. You can also hack the wings in half. But these are both extra work and not really needed.

Here is the hardest part: dice an onion, 2 more carrots and 1 or 2 more celery stalks. Dice as small as you can.

Saute these in a soup pot with salt and pepper. Add a quart or two of stock, as much white wine as you like, and another quart or two of water (until you get enough soup). Simmer this for a while. Then make matzoh balls using the directions on the mix. Add to the broth, get all this to a low simmer. Go play Halo for however long you like your matzoh balls to sit.

That's all.

Pasta with Bolognese Meat Sauce

Start with a pound and a half of ground beef.

Dice 1 or 2 onions, 3 or 4 carrots, 2 or 3 celery stalks. You want to dice this as small as you possibly can. This is the only hard work in the whole recipe.

Saute the onions in a pan with olive oil. Add carrots and celery. Add salt and pepper.

Now put the beef in with another spray of salt and pepper. Brown it until it is not red anymore.

Add a cup or so of milk. Turn the heat to simmer. Play Halo until the milk has reduced off. Check the stove between matches (every 10 minutes or so).

Add a cup or so of white wine. Do the same simmer and Halo trick.

After the white wine has cooked off, add one 28oz can of crushed tomatoes (maybe slightly more), or the same volume of fresh that you have ground up in the Cuisinart. Stir, turn the stove down as low as it will go. Play Halo for 5 or 6 hours, stirring every few rounds.

Now make your favorite pasta that is similar to penne. Mix the pasta with the sauce, grate on some Parmigiano Reggiano. Eat.

Indestructible Beef Stew

This is a variation on Pete's Braised Beef.

Dice an onion, saute in olive oil. Throw in a pound or two of cubed stew beef. Add salt and pepper. Stir around until the beef is browned. Add sliced mushrooms and a couple cups of red wine. Put this in the an oven set to 300-350F. Go play Halo for an hour or two.

When you get all done with Halo, cut up a few potatoes, and a couple of carrots. Add this to the pot, throw it back in the oven. Play Halo for 2 or 3 more hours.

Pull the stew out, throw in frozen peas. Salt and pepper to taste. Stir it around so everything is still hot. Serve with bread or rice.

Note: I call this indestructible stew because one time I accidentally added soy sauce instead of red wine, and the stew was still edible.

What recipes do you have that require little work, and allow you to play Halo and still get credit for kitchen time?

Posted by psu at 08:23 PM | Comments (6)

January 27, 2005


by peterb

It's been a while since the last top ten list. You know what that means.

Today's topic: famous quotations that are improved if you replace one of the nouns with the word "pants." Some of the sources are obvious, some are a little more obscure. The tag of whoever suggested a particular twisted quote follows each quote in italics. Feel free to ask for attributions for the original quotes or contribute your own entries in the comments.

"It is bitter -- bitter," he answered;
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my pants." [peterb]

Hope is the thing with trousers. [peterb]

Cover her face; my pants dazzle; she died young. [agroce]

If you meet the Buddha on the road, pants him. [visigoth]

Qui du cul d'un chien s'amourose, Il lui parait un pantalon. [peterb]

Lasciate ogni pantaloni, voi ch'entrate. [peterb]

The pants that can be named are not the true pants. [sdavis]

Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius,
That you would have me seek into my pants,
For that which is not in them? [mahim]

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our pants,
But in ourselves. [agroce]

Every great advance in natural knowledge has involved the absolute rejection of pants. [visigoth]

Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your pants. [peterb]

You're one microscopic cog
In his catastrophic plan
Designed and directed by his Red Right Pants [agroce]

My god, it's full of pants. [sdavis]

Men have died from time to time,
and worms have eaten them, but not for pants. [agroce]

Pants first; morals later. [peterb]

Scandal is pants made tedious by morality. [visigoth]

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of pants. [agroce]

I am not a vegetarian because I love animals; I am a vegetarian because I hate pants. [rlink]

Of all the pants, in all the towns, in all the world ... she walks into mine. [mahim]

In the beginning there was the word, and that word was "pants" [sdavis]

Don't judge a person until you've walked a mile in their pants. [dpelleg]

I'm shocked, shocked to find that pants are going on in here! [agroce]

Some pants! Some pants! My kingdom for some pants! [tomault]

In Heaven, everything is fine.
In Heaven, everything is fine.
You'll have your nice pants
and I'll have mine. [peterb]

And as human beings, you and I need fresh, pure pants to replenish our precious bodily fluids. [sdavis]

Oh Pants, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
in the howling storm

Has found out thy seams
Of crimson joy.
And with his dark secret love,
does thy thread destroy. [jch]

Man I ain't getting nowhere just sitting in pants like this
There's something happening somewhere baby I just know that there is. [mahim]

Something zippered this way comes. [peterb]

A slip of the foot you may soon recover, but a slip of the pants you may never get over. [rlink]

Look, Daddy! Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his pants! [visigoth]

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, pants? [clamen]

All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in pants. [krevis]

I should have been a pair of ragged pants
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas. [agroce]

In pants, no one can hear you scream. [rlink]

Renewed shall be blade that was broken:
The pantsless again shall be king. [peterb]

It is by pants alone I set my mind in motion. [visigoth]

The pants of the many outweigh the pants of the few. [sdavis]

Socialism needs democracy like the human body needs pants. [visigoth]

A man without religion is like a fish without pants. [peterb]

The fastest way to a man's heart is through his pants. [tomault]

Despair thy charm;
And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee, Macduff was from his pants
Untimely ripp'd. [jch]

Look on my pants, ye mighty, and despair. [nlanza]

I only regret that I have but one pair of pants to give for my country. [psu]

(the full, unedited list may be found here.)

Posted by peterb at 04:31 PM | Comments (5)

January 26, 2005

Quick Pick: Land of Legends

by peterb
Land of Legends

Land of Legends

Indie Game Week may be over, but that doesn't mean Tea Leaves won't continue its coverage of independent games. Since yesterday's article was about consoles that can only be used to play duly authorized corporate funded and developed megaprojects, let's veer off today and look at a small, independently-produced game for Windows PCs: Tiny Hero Game Studio's Land of Legends.

As I've mentioned several times, I have a soft spot in my heart for turn-based tactical combat games. Land of Legends falls firmly into this category, derived straight from board games such as Squad Leader and computer games such as Warlords. Here's a few brief comments about Land of Legends, based on the beta.

The metamechanic in Land of Legends is, in my taxonomy, "Single move / Turn Based." By this I mean that you move one piece at a time, and you have the option to move all your pieces on your turn, rather than there being some attempt at simulating simultaneous movement via initiative. This is a fine system, with a number of virtues. It's simple to implement, of course, and also easy for the player to understand. Some of the best tactical combat games, such as Nectaris and it's barely-known sequel Earthlight, fall into this category.

Zombie "card"

Zombie "card"

The art in the game is bouncy and lighthearted. It's heavily influenced by both Japanese manga and Richard and Wendy Pini's Elfquest. Animation is minimal at this point in its development, but that's fine -- the graphics are meant to be iconic, and they get the point across perfectly. One element of the interface that doesn't work quite as well are the cards used to represent units. They're meant to be a compact representation of all the attributes and powers a unit can have. And they are. They're pretty, and have a nice sense of style about them. But I found the icons beyond attack, defend, and move to be a bit bewildering, especially when every piece has its own unique power. To work around this, you hover the mouse over the icons to get a tooltip-style description of what it is, but doing this thirty times in a battle gets tiresome. I understand the desire to invoke the feel of a collectable card game, but it doesn't quite gel here.

Only a few maps were available in the beta for single-player play, but they were diverse enough to showcase some of the careful design that went in to the game. One aspect of the game balance that I liked is that there are quite a lot of "support" units that don't deal direct damage. For example, the "Mystic" unit has the ability to increase the mobility of your forces by allowing a piece that has already moved to move again. Another nice attribute is that most of the battles available have a specific goal besides "kill all the bad guys," so there's some strategic flexibility built in to the engine. On the downside, most of the maps that are available in the demo are extremely small. None approach the size of a decent Warlords map or, choosing an open source example, The Battle for Wesnoth. It may very well be that the released version will have some battles more epic in scope; we'll have to wait and see.

One interesting technical note: the beta of Land of Legends was written in C#, and relied on the .NET framework and Managed DirectX. This means that that build, of course, was completely impossible to port to other popular platforms, such as Linux or MacOS. The game is currently being ported to C++. I do hope the developers consider making the game available on other platforms: portable code is good code. I enjoyed the taste of Land of Legends, and look forward to trying it again when it is completed. That it plays as well as it does this early in its development is a good sign indeed.

Land of Legends supports online play, but I didn't try this it out, as inevitably when I play tactical games online I get whipped like a copper bowl filled with cream, and then I have to go sulk for two weeks.

If you want to try Land of Legends for yourself, you'll need to create an account on Tiny Hero's web site and then follow these instructions. It is currently available only for Windows.

Posted by peterb at 08:40 PM | Comments (1)

January 25, 2005

Console Buying

by psu

Earlier I babbled at length about the three major consoles. Well, the result predicted in that piece has come to pass. I have come out of the other side of the Christmas season with a new GameCube and a new slim line PS2.


You will recall that I came into this thinking that the Nintendo box would be the stronger of the two. This was mostly based on my experience with the GameBoy Advance, which is an excellent little box with a lot of excellent little games. In my mind, the latent GameCube was like a big GBA but with prettier graphics allowing the creation of even bigger, more immersive versions of all the great GBA games. But, this isn't really how it turned out.

There are two problems with the actual GameCube that make me like it less than I thought I would.

The Controller Sucks

While it fits the hands well, the GameCube controller, to me, feels sloppy and imprecise. It's hard to make the sticks go where you want, and the camera stick feels different than the main control stick, which is disturbing. It's not clear to me that the oddball placement of the face buttons achieves any real purpose. Finally, the two stage triggers are morally disordered. They have neither the easy accessibility of the PS2 shoulder buttons nor the long smooth travel of the Xbox triggers. Overall, the Xbox controller S and the PS2 controller are both much nicer to use.

Expensive Games

It seems to take forever for the Nintendo titles to get cheap. It is just recently the case that titles that have been around forever, like Zelda and Mario Sunshine are starting to hit the bargain bins. This cuts down on the number of titles I've tried.

So far I've played mainly Zelda and Mario Golf on this machine. I also tried out Tales of Symphonia (because it was free). Let us not speak of that game again.

Mario Golf is wacky and fun. Zelda is not the transcendent experience that I was expecting. The game design, plot, graphics, music and gameplay are all for the most part excellent. However, I found some of the controls, and especially the camera, a bit sloppy. The game has a hybrid camera system that both sticks to the main character and allows you to spin the camera around using the second stick on the controller. Unfortunately, the free camera is so loose that it's useless and the non-free camera is sort of stupid, often ending up behind your head or in some wall somewhere so you can't see anything. This, combined with the controller problems make me slightly less enthusiastic about this game than I think I should be. Luckily, I just found the Explosive Fruit, and I think all is forgiven.

Playstation 2

I like this box more than I thought I would. In particular, I love the controller. While the shoulder buttons are weak compared to the great triggers on the Xbox, the overall layout of the controller is just perfect for my hands. It's easy to reach all the buttons and the sticks all at the same time without stretching my hands much on the controller. The controller is neither too large nor too small. Finally, I seem to be able to play the longest on this controller before needing to rest my hands.

The games on the PS2 all come in at or above expectations. Disgaea is a fun strategy and battle game with twisted penguins that say "Dude!" a lot. Katarmari Damacy is so good my wife plays it. Ico is beautiful to look at, but I've been too distracted by other things to really get started.

The surprise is Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando. I picked it up cheap with low expectations because I had given up on all the other third person shooter/action games I ever tried. R&C is different. The controls are tight and well tuned. It's easy to jump, flip, shoot, and hit stuff. Perhaps most importantly, the camera and targeting system mostly help you shoot and destroy enemies rather than getting in your way. This makes the combat fun, even when it gets a bit hard. I wish Zelda controlled this well. The game has a fast pace, levels that are not too long, its always easy to keep track of what you are supposed to be doing. The only major flaw is the psychotic save point system, but the pacing of the game mostly makes up for that.

So, overall, except for a bit of role reversal, I think the material consoles lived up to their latent expectations. I still play too much Halo 2.

Posted by psu at 08:48 PM | Comments (7)

January 24, 2005

Unfinished Business

by peterb

Yesterday, I finished The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

It took me about 2 years or so to finish it. This isn't because the game was particularly hard, but because about 18 months ago I reached the final dungeon, made it most of the way through, and then, dreading the inevitable endless boss battle, set the game aside.

My game shelf is a study in unfinished business. Just glancing along it I can see numerous games that I've abandoned midway through. As I look at them, I feel a vague sense of unease, of foreboding. A sense of obligations unmet.

I feel guilty because I didn't play games.

The odd thing is, this doesn't happen to me over, for example, books. With a book, I tend to either read it until I'm finished, or decide that it's not worth reading. Then I put the book away forever without any guilt whatsoever. It seems to be only videogames which throw me into such emotional turmoil.

Could this be an expression of psu's theory of the latent object of desire? Perhaps the games represent my failure to fulfill that desire. I fixated on what I "needed" to be satisfied, purchased it, and there the object sits on my shelf, rebuking me with expectations unfulfilled? That theory fails, I think, because of the lack of guilt over books and movies on my shelves, which certainly qualify as (former) latent objects.

I don't have a big picture explanation for this, but perhaps inspecting each game I've abandoned will bring enlightenment. I'll limit the discussion to console games, or else I'll be here all day, writing separate entries for every Wizardry game since The Knight of Diamonds.

  • Silent Hill 3 - Stopped playing after I finished the first monster-filled area, right after I got to the subway. The boss battle with the monster penis convinced me that the authors were completely out of ideas and it was just going to be 30 hours of more of the same.
  • Beyond Good and Evil - I was enjoying everything about this game and was most of the way through when I was forced to take a break for about two weeks due to work. When I came back, I realized that my tenuous grasp of the plot had evaporated. I was sneaking around a big factory with absolutely no idea why I was there or what I should do next.
  • Fatal Frame 2 - I really liked the plot here. Great mood, pacing was a little slow, but the controls were so frustrating that playing felt more like volunteer work at an old age home than "having fun." This game also has the save point problem. I abandoned it when I encountered an invincible boss monster. Later, I learned that you're supposed to run away from him. But there's no context in the game to tell you that, and the nearest save point before this boss is about 6 minutes of play time away. After the third time he killed me, the mere thought of trudging my way back to him again sapped my very will to live.
  • Shenmue (1 and 2) - I always love this game when I think about it. Then I try to play it, and rediscover how bad the controls are. Then I hate it. Although, to this day I still giggle at the image of a Japanese teenager in a leather jacket wandering around the rough parts of town asking everyone "Do you know where the sailors hang out?"
  • Dynasty Warriors 3 (and 4) - Lots of action! Pretty costumes! Stupid console save point mechanics! Bye bye.
  • Deux Ex: Invisible War - Reasonable controls, intriguing plot, and nice cutscenes, but somehow soulless. Despite its explosions and bombast, the game never instilled a sense of urgency in me.
  • Panzer Dragoon Orta - No actual guilt over this one. I want to see the "plot," such as it is, but I'm just too old and slow to successfully make it past level 8.
  • Conker's Bad Fur Day - Another no-guilt title. It just wasn't funny. I was ready to quit the moment I saw the "poop level." (Here's a pet peeve: when people call scatological humor "adult." It isn't.)

Now I understand. It's perfectly clear. I have transcended my guilt, and left it behind. I stopped playing all of these games because there was some part of them that I didn't like. I felt guilty because the parts of the games that I did like were more memorable than the parts of the games that I didn't like. So when I thought of Beyond Good and Evil, for example, I would think to myself "Gee, I'm vaguely sad that I don't know whatever happened to Jade and her battle against the zombie aliens," instead of "Wow, I sure am glad that I don't have to deal with those super-frustrating save points that are spread too far apart."

So now that some of my reasons for abandoning games are down in black and white, let me try to distill them into general principles that developers can use to make their games more compelling. More compelling to me, at least, and of course I am the apotheosis of what All Gamers Want.

1. Keep the action moving constantly. A game where the plot moves along at a brisk pace will keep me more interested than a game where I have to engage in 300 random battles to reach the next phase. While Zelda doesn't proceed at breakneck speed, its pacing is perfectly consistent from start to finish. Once you've played for an hour or so, you develop an innate sense of about how far away you are from the next plot point. This consistency did a lot to keep me playing.

2. Stupid control schemes ruin games. You can have the best plot in the world, but if moving my protagonist around feels like driving a one-wheeled forklift, it's not a game I'll keep playing very long.

3. Replaying sequences is boring. You've heard me say it before -- console-style save points are idiotic. In a single player game, there is no value in forcing the player to replay a segment they've already cleared. None. Whatsoever. For any reason. If I feel like I'm a hamster in a spinning wheel, I drop the game as quickly as possible.

4. Game difficulty needs to adapt to the player. This is related to points (1) and (3). Many of the games I play let you choose a difficulty level. This is a classic example of the broken way software engineers think when left to their own devices. "We don't want to do the work to make a smart decision, so let's give the user a knob they can twist to choose the behavior of our product." Even though at the time the game asks the player to choose the difficulty level, the player isn't in a position know what it means. This is especially egregious in games where you can't change the difficulty level once you've started a game, but I'm not letting the other games off the hook either. A game with a narrative should be actively working to move the player along at a consistent pace, providing a challenge appropriate to their skill level. If the player is breezing through areas with ease, the game should throw a little more at them until they start to struggle. If the player is constantly dying, the game should dial the difficulty down. Do it quietly, do it without fuss, and do it without even informing the player. There are some games for which this model isn't appropriate, but I maintain that any game with a significant, sustained narrative would benefit from it.

5. Tell the player how far along she is. I have an intrinsic bias towards shorter games, yet I don't shy away from even the largest books. I was musing about this in conversation the other day, and Stewart Clamen incisively pointed out "You know how much longer you have with books." He's absolutely right: at any moment, you can just glance and know about how much further you have to read to end the experience. Some of the better games manage to do this (again, we can use Zelda as an example. There's always a status screen showing you how much of the world you've uncovered, how many pieces of the Triforce remain to be found, and so on).

6. Lastly, boss battles are stupid. Scientific research that I just completely made up shows that the same people that like "boss" battles in videogames also like unusable third-person 3-d cameras. And drink white wine.

For the record, apart from Zelda, here's a partial list of some of the games I have actually finished in the past few years: Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur's Gate (I and II), Ico, Planescape: Torment, Halo 2, and the first two Silent Hill games. What these titles have in common is consistency of pacing. That's why I listed it first in my list of principles. From this I conclude: in a narrative-focused game, pacing is paramount. Which sounds obvious but, based on the games I've played over the past few years, apparently isn't.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to find that save file for Gladius. I've been playing it for nearly a year, and I'm just about halfway through.

Posted by peterb at 08:11 PM | Comments (3)

January 21, 2005

Beef Braised in Two Buck Chuck

by peterb

After mentioning this dish in passing in the "what to drink" article, I realized that it was worth sharing the recipe. It is based loosely on one of Mario Batali's. My version is a little bolder, and about 350% cheaper.

Start with 2 pounds of beef brisket (you can also use a large chuck roast or similar cut). Salt and pepper it, and brown it on all sides in a large stockpot with 6 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. This will take you about 10 minutes, including time for turning. Set it aside.

Drain most of the liquid and then add one chopped carrot, one chopped onion, one chopped celery stalk, and about a quarter-pound of bacon, diced. Sweat those until they start to get soft. Pour in a bottle of Two Buck Chuck or some similarly cheap-but-drinky wine, and add 2 cups of simple tomato sauce (homemade is best, but the world won't end if you use canned. We're going to cook this into oblivion). Bring the concoction to a boil. Put the meat back in, lower the heat until just simmering, and cook until the meat starts falling apart -- about 3 hours, but you can use your judgment. Since this is wet cooking, don't worry about overcooking the meat.

When you've decided it's done, remove the meat from the stockpot, raise the heat, and reduce the liquid until it reaches a consistency you like. Slice the meat, spoon the sauce over it, and serve.

Easy, delicious, and the leftovers will last for a few days if you keep your guests from devouring it all.

Posted by peterb at 09:24 PM | Comments (4)

January 20, 2005

Sticks and Stones

by peterb
B1 Bomber (click to enlarge)

B1 Bomber (click to enlarge)

The second most tiresome thing about the "there's too much violence in these newfangled videogames" discussion is that violence has always been a part of games.

The argument is made, usually poorly, that today's violence is "worse" because graphics today are so much more vivid than they were in the past. This is twaddle. More accessible, perhaps, but not necessarily worse.

One need only to look to Thomas Pynchon's V for an example of how the written word can depict more vividly than image. Chapter 4, "In Which Esther Gets a Nose Job" still makes me feel faint if I try to read the whole thing through at once, in a way that the goriest hospital video does not. I can only handle it a paragraph at a time. Here's one of the easier passages, before the going gets really rocky:

Schoenmaker first made two incisions, one on either side through the internal lining of the nose, near the septum at the lower border of the side cartilage. He then pushed a pair of long-handled, curved and pointed scissors through the nostril, up past the cartilage to the nasal bone. The scissors had been designed to cut both on opening and closing. Quickly, like a barber finishing up a high-tipping head, he separated the bone from the membrane and skin over it. "Undermining, we call this," he explained. He repeated the scissors work through the other nostril. "You see you have two nasal bones, they're separated by your septum. At the bottom they're each attached to a piece of lateral cartilage. I'm undermining you all the way from this attachment where the nasal bones join the forehead."
By the time Schoenmaker gets out the saw, I'm usually ready for a stiff drink. The idea that better rendering of pictures inherently means more powerful images is false. Alfred Hitchcock made an entire career building suspense and emotion based as much on what he didn't show as on what made it onscreen. If we are to worry about violence in games, it must not be in the mechanics of how it is depicted, but in the emotions it exploits.

Nukewar (click to enlarge)

Nukewar (click to enlarge)

In the early '80s, Avalon-Hill released a few simple but challenging games, mostly written in BASIC. One was a version of Sid Sackson's "Acquire", another was a reconstruction of the Battle of Midway. Two of the ones I liked playing the most were B1 Bomber and Nukewar. I liked them because the goals were clear, the mechanics were simple, and the stakes were high. HOT WAR HOT WAR HOT WAR flashed the screen, and as a patriotic American I understood that it was time to fly to Leningrad, drop a single nuclear bomb, and kill everyone there, because, y'know. That was the job. There's a war on, you know. Nukewar presented you with the further strategic decision of when, or whether, to start a war. In the screenshot to the right, you can see the results of a game where, as the US, I just sat tight and didn't start a war, and the Russians beat me to the punch. The lesson is clear: if you want to survive, start a nuclear war. And people want to complain because there are games now that let you knock over a liquor store?

I don't have an awful lot of sympathy for all the crocodile tears about the violence in games like Grand Theft Auto. Yes: I find it tasteless, I find it demeaning, and worst of all it's not a very good game. But the quality and scale of the violence therein is not, it seems to me, necessarily any worse than the cold war fantasies of the Clancy generation, who believed (or in some cases still believe) that politics might -- regrettably -- require the murder of half the people in the world.

Truth and consequences

Truth and consequences

I don't believe that Nukewar and its ilk did any lasting damage to me. I don't believe that Grand Theft Auto will do any lasting damage to the people who play it. In the final analysis, games are instruments of fantasy. Fantasy, being what it is, often transgresses across boundaries that we do not cross in real life. Attempts to suppress, to channel such imaginings are just another form of fantasy -- a fantasy that life is simple, and that we can always recognize evil when we see it. If you want to worry about violence, worry about the violence that is being done on our behalf. Institutional violence, where one person decides that the killing should start, but someone else has to go and do the actual dirty work, is to me the most frightening of all.

And it's a lot harder to stop a war than to boycott a videogame.

Posted by peterb at 09:28 PM | Comments (0)

January 19, 2005

What To Drink (Booze Edition)

by peterb

Since psu covered cooking equipment yesterday, I wanted to talk a little about ingredients. In particular, alcohol. The typical home bar -- and I use the term "bar" loosely, in my house it's just The Cupboard With The Booze In It -- is stocked more by happenstance than by planning. If, as is common, you buy your alcohol on an as-needed basis ("Oh, I need two ounces of Jasper's Honeydew-and-Prosciutto Liqueur for these cookies...") and don't drink a lot yourself, then you end up with large quantities of comparatively expensive bottles that neither you nor anyone else will ever drink taking up lots of space. If you plan what you want or need, you can avoid that.

As in yesterday's article, the goal here is to describe a reasonable minimum that you can have. This should give you flexibility in cooking, a small buffer with which to entertain your friends who drink, and provide a little room for growth and experimentation. If your heavy drinkin' cousin Bartleby comes over and starts hitting the sauce, this might not satisfy his needs. Although maybe that's a good thing.

Before we begin, I'd like to note that while alcohol is a common and useful ingredient in many cuisines, not everyone can have it. Some people are allergic to it, it's generally considered inappropriate for children in anything but the tiniest quantiies, and many people -- possibly you, or possibly one of your guests -- have problems with alcoholism. For some of these situations, any alcohol is too much. So please remember as you read that when I say things like "You need a bottle of such-and-such in your pantry," I'm referring to situations where alcohol in food (or a little social drinking) is acceptable. Obviously, if having booze around is going to result in disaster, you don't "need" it.

Things You Need

-several bottles of red wine (I'll go into more detail about exactly how much and what type below)
-one bottle of white wine
-one bottle of vodka
-one bottle of brandy
-one bottle of whiskey (optional, for entertaining guests who drink)
-one bottle of some form of digestif, aperitif, or cordial.
-equipment: glasses and a corkscrew.

That's it. Obviously, this gets modified a little by your personal preferences. I like Porto. I love Porto. Therefore, I always have some. But I wouldn't suggest that it be part of everyone's standard kitchen stock.

Red wine is a gimme. It's the thing you should be drinking a little of several times a week. In addition to being healthy and delicious, it adds depth to just about any tomato or meat dish. If you haven't planned a sauce for any given meal, you can simply tack on "...and then deglaze the pan with a cup of red wine, and reduce until it starts to thicken" to the end of any almost recipe. Congratulations. Now you have sauce.

Wine is an intimidating topic for most people, because there's such a variety of products out there, and most of us can only afford to sample a small percentage of what's available. So what should you keep in the house? In order to answer this, we have to understand the fundamentals of wine. Yeah, yeah, nose, color, mouth feel, whatever. Those are incidental to the topic of wine. Here's all you need to know to get started.

-Trust your own taste buds.

It doesn't matter what Robert Parker, your snobby friends, or anyone else think of a wine. If you think it tastes bad, it does. If you think it tastes good, it does. The reason we turn to experts on wine is because of the expense incurred in figuring out what we like. If you luck out and find an expert whose tastes match yours (or, equally useful, an expert whose tastes completely oppose yours), then go ahead and trust them. But in the end, it's all your call.

peterb's Theorem of Wine Tasting: Let Ps represent an value indicating how good a given wine tastes, higher values meaning tastes better. Let E represent the price you personally paid for the wine. Pe, the amount of enjoyment one receives from wine, can be expressed by the formula: Pe = Ps / E

The obvious corollaries to this rule are: expensive wine tastes best when someone else is paying for it. Furthermore, if you like two wines about equally, the cheaper wine is better.

Since we're stocking your kitchen, and since I'm not going to pay for your wine, the thing to do is to find an inexpensive red wine and stock up on it. For me, a case of Charles Shaw ("Two Buck Chuck") Cabernet meets my base level needs just fine. If you're in Pittsburgh where there aren't any Trader Joe's, and you can't get that, ask friends who cook for their recommendations. Stick one bottle in the cabinet, put the rest of the case in the basement, and buy another case when you're down to just a few bottles. And at $3 / bottle, I don't feel guilty using it in whatever recipes I need, in copious quantities. (Personal note to Mario Batali: recommend just one more time that some poor schmuck upend a $60 bottle of Barolo into your recipe for braised beef and I'm going to drag you down to Nobu and shove two chopsticks so far up your nose you'll be able to breath through your ears. Not only is Two Buck Chuck a more economical wine for that recipe, it tastes better in that sauce. If you want a $60 bottle of Barolo with that recipe, why not try drinking it, you testa di cavolfiore).

You only need one bottle of white wine because it's better used younger, and so you'll want to replace that bottle more frequently rather than buy a bunch and sit on them. Also, white wine is not as good as red wine, and people who like white wine more than red wine are the devil.

Vodka is a good neutral spirit to have around. I always keep some in the freezer. Get a small screw-top jar, put in a couple of split Madagascar vanilla beans, and fill the jar with vodka. In a couple of months, you'll have your own vanilla extract that is cheaper per-ounce than what you can buy, and will also taste better. Top off the bottle with the vodka as you use it. There's a lot of variability in vodka, so it's worth avoiding the very bottom tier, which will taste more or less like battery acid. I favor Stolichnaya because it's not too dear, but there are plenty of options that will work. If you plan to use the vodka for drinking, stick to 80 proof. If you'll only use it for cooking and baking, 100 proof is fine.

Brandy is versatile. Any time you're making a dessert, it's worthwhile asking yourself if some brandy could play a role. It's a volatile spirit, but it has a very interesting flavour, and quite a lot of it. This means you can add it to any sort of heated concoction and boil off the alcohol, but still infuse the dish with the taste and (psychological) warmth of the brandy. Brandy matches with any sort of fruit desserts perfectly, and is should also be your liquor of choice for flambé. There's no limit to the types and varieties of brandy, and not coindentally there's no limit to the amount of money you can spend on the high end. If you're not going to be drinking it, something like Hennessey VS Cognac should only cost you around $25 / 750ml, and will last a long time. If you're going to sip it, you might look in to a more unusual and tastier choice, such as a good Armagnac, but then you probably won't want to cook with it. So let's stick with VS for our kitchen cabinet.

You generally speaking won't use much whiskey in cooking. Yes, I know there are recipes that call for it, and bourbon particularly matches well with coffee and chocolate, but remember that there's some recipe that calls for nearly any liquor, and our goal here is to hit the common cases. No, whiskey is on my list simply because, ounce for ounce, it's likely to be useful when entertaining guests who drink. It's a fair approximation of the truth to say that if a randomly chosen cocktail recipe doesn't call for vodka, it probably calls for bourbon or scotch. And plenty of people just like whiskey on the rocks. I could write a little treatise here about the different sorts of whiskeys, sour-mash bourbon versus scotch malts, but this isn't the time for that. Pick a midrange name bourbon or mixed scotch; bourbon is probably a bit more useful in cooking because it's sweeter. Put it in the cabinet. Now you're set.

Cordials are tricky. The problem with cordials is they're meant to be drunk a very small amount at a time. Which is fine. Except that means that you open the bottle, and you pour a couple of tiny glasses of Grand Marnier or what have you, and then it sits in the cabinet and then you buy another, because you tried one at a party and kind of liked it, and then the next thing you know, your liquor cabinet has 150 bottles in it: a bottle of wine, a few bottles of spirits, and 146 different varieties of cordial, each 7/8ths full, except for that "egg liqueur" thing your parents gave you that they bought in 1962 in Verona, which is only 1/8th full, because over the years it has evaporated away leaving a gloopy, disturbing yolk-coloured pudding on the bottom of the bottle. (Note: egg liqueur really exists.)

But a good cordial has its place, particularly one classified as a digestif. They really do work. I've found that if I'm feeling a little ill, for example, often a small glass of creme de menthe or Sambuca can help settle my stomach. So find one you like (how? Visit your friends who have the aforementioned 146 bottles and try theirs) and buy one bottle. The rules for inventory management of digestifs is simple, but you have to keep on top of them and actually enforce them: If the bottle is unopened a year after you buy it, give or throw it away, and if you haven't returned to an open coridal a year after you opened it, give up. Throw it away.

For equipment, there is again no end to the goofy booze-related merchandise you can buy. All you really need are a set of wine glasses that you like, and a reliable, well-made wing-type corkscrew, although there are of course other varieties available. There is a real pleasure in fine, special-purpose glasses for given drinks, and if you have the cash to burn, go for it. But a nice set of simple wine glasses goes a long way. For your "survival kit" needs, make sure you get glasses that are dishwasher-safe. And while I'm a little skeptical of those wine vaccum pumps to try to "save" your wine for a few days after opening, they are inexpensive and do seem to let you eke out maybe an extra day. Since most corks expand after being removed, the kits are convenient if for no other reason than to have some extra plastic corks.

That's everything you need. Obviously, there are exceptions -- if you cook Japanese cuisine, for example, you'll want a bottle of sake for mixing with miso -- but if you need to invoke those, you'll know it.

Things You Don't Need

-Rum. Shut up. You don't need it. I know, you think you need it, particularly that Myers' dark rum. But you don't need that. You need a bottle of molasses. Use that instead of the rum. For recipes that call for rum that actually need alcohol, use your brandy and a little molasses, instead.
-Gin. It's useful in martinis and gin and tonics, but that's it.
-Rye. Remember when I said just pick some random whiskey and be done with it? Small modification: don't pick rye. Nobody likes it (except me). I don't know why, but that's just the way it is.
-Any cordial developed after about 1975. It's hard to identify those if you don't already know a priori, but if it is a strange colour and looks like it's marketed at college chicks, stay away from it. Also, avoid anything made by Jacquins.
-Most other alcohol-related paraphernalia. Swizzle-sticks. Shot glasses. Shakers. Little umbrellas (hey, I said need, not want). Maraschino cherries.

There are maybe two more things you should have when stocking your kitchen with booze.

First, you should have a sense of adventure and a willingness to experiment. If you can, taste the ingredients that you're using. Ask yourself what characteristics they have, and if there's some booze that would do a better job. Look for opportunities to try new things when out and about so you don't have to gamble $50 on a bottle of something that turns out to not be what you hoped.

Second, you should have a sense of what it means for you and your guests to drink responsibly. Let me reiterate that some people are allergic to alcohol, or have problems with alcoholism. Just as you would when serving nuts or shellfish, make sure you know the dietary restrictions of your guests before you serve them drinks or food with alcohol.

And with all that said, na zdorovie!

Posted by peterb at 06:16 PM | Comments (11)

January 18, 2005

Stuff you need for cooking

by psu

Hobbyist cooks are almost by definition equipment and gadget freaks. This is one endeavor where the latent object has great power.

Therefore, as a public service, I'm here to tell you what I think you really need, and what is just stuff that's nice to have.

You really need one good knife. I suggest a 8-10 inch chef's knife depending on how big your hands are. I have a soft spot for my mom's old chinese cleaver, but I never use it. A couple of good expensive paring knives also help, but are not critical.

You really need one good non-stick pan. I used to think non-stick pans were for girlie-men who didn't know how to season a decent cast iron skillet. But I find that a 10 inch silverstone-lined frying is perfect for almost everything. I use my pan for

- Eggs
- Stir fry and saute of all types.
- Pan roasting steak and potatoes.
- Fish.
- Making reduced sauces.
- Anything else that is small enough to fit.

For bigger jobs you of course need a bigger pan, but I hardly ever use by larger frying pans anymore, so I think bigger jobs are rare.

You really need one good soup pot. I suggest a 6-8 quart soup pot/dutch oven. Perfect for soup, stew, oven roasting stuff and making pasta. I recently tried one of those tall stock pot things with the pasta insert and it blows. I like my dutch oven better.

You really need a decent cutting board. Make it big enough so you have room to work. I like the wood ones best. But I'm getting old and have started to use lighter plastic ones that are easier to clean.

You really need a good oven. By good I mean, at least even. Sadly, you are usually stuck with the oven you have.

That's really it. You don't need a Wok. You don't need a huge flame thrower stove burner that can char a whole turkey in 20 minutes. You don't need a suitcase full of knives. You don't need three ovens. You don't need a bread machine, Cuisinart, 9000 horse power mixer, or all the rest. But damn they are nice if you have them.

Also, you don't have to spend hundreds of dollars on cookware to get good stuff. Buy it on sale. Go to a restaurant supply house. In particular, don't buy super expensive frying pans. Frying pans, if you are using them right, get destroyed. Buy a $30 pan every couple of years instead of a $100 pan every couple of years.

Oh right. You need a rice cooker.

Posted by psu at 08:05 PM | Comments (15)

January 17, 2005

X11, Part Deux: Why It Blows

by psu

In a recent flame war about X11, a comment suggested that using Emacs under X11 and then saying that X11 was "primitive" was like judging modern Windows by using Windows 3.1.

It's interesting that they bring up Windows 3.1, since the evidence will show that Windows 3.1, for the majority of actual users, was already years ahead of X11 and its ilk even back in 1992.

Ultimately the roots of why X11 blows come back to the community that designed it and the community for which it was designed. It was designed by engineers and dorks to be an interesting technical exercise in how to construct a display server. Note that the term Window Manager never appears in that statement, and that is telling. X11 as a system was not initially designed with the idea of being a comprehensive user interface and application support platform. It was initially designed as a way to experiment with display system mechanism vs. policy, but was hastily rolled out to crush Sun's network window system before it became another NFS. So, at its core, it was a funky display hack. 20 years later it is still a funky display hack.

Meanwhile, even the Macintosh has had time to put a real operating system under its nice user interface, and update the display technology to do things that X11 only dreams about (Windows as OpenGL textures? Resolution independence? Fully antialiased rendering? Decent system wide text layout?). MacOS has all of this infrastructure not just as a technical exercise, but to support the requirements of the applications that users run on the platform.

But, all of this is the lowest level of the infrastructure. MacOS (and Windows) also have mature mechanisms that support application development at a high level. For example, It's great to be proud of the fact that GNOME and KDE have text only copy paste covered. But how about a system wide standard for drag and drop? How about styled text? HTML? Images? Structured graphics?

MacOS, via Cocoa, also has high level frameworks for modelling a lot of the standard functionality of a GUI application. I'm not just talking about the user interface widgets. I'm talking about comprehensive support for MVC. There is standardized infrastructure in the AppKit to model your document, archiving, control flow and input focus, communication between the model and the view (key value coding, key value observing), undo, redo, copy and paste of rich content, drag and drop, shared support for text styled text editing and, in addition, for no extra charge, lickable icons.

But this isn't anything new. Even as early as 1985, the MacApp framework on MacOS 2 or 3 provided a lot of these features. Just not in a package at the same level of maturity.

Of course, as X11 shows so well, all the mechanism in the world does you no good without developers who care passionately about the usability of the final product. This is why Firefox or Mozilla are pretty decent even on X11. This is why most of the X11 applications I have ever used completely blow (GIMP? Xfig? Please). Usability and polish are not high priority requirements. Other things take precedence, and it shows.

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

January 14, 2005

San Francisco

by psu

Although I've documented how I hate California, I make something of an exception for San Francisco. My wife and I have travelled there periodically for the last fifteen years, and now it's become a pleasure to go and visit old haunts and eat in our favorite places. So here is a guide to what we do and where we stay in the city.

Monticello Inn

This hotel is near the main cable car stop at Market and Powell. It was a small independent inn when we started going, but has since been hooked into the Kimpton group of fancy local hotels. We started going because they have a nice handicapped accessible room and a good location. From here you are walking distance to Union Square and huge mall on Market Street for the ultimate in yuppy indulgence. A longer walk puts you in Chinatown, gets you to the City Lights bookstore, or puts you into North Beach. I have found the service here to always be excellent. They know what a hand held shower is. They remember us when we show up again after two years away.

The place is also close to a few favorite food spots.

Blondie's Pizza

Just around the corner from the Inn is this pizza slice place. The thing here is a huge slice of pizza and a coke for $4. It's a great snack or dinner for your first night in off the plane. I won't say the pizza is transcendent or anything, but it's huge and convenient.

Dottie's True Blue Cafe

Here we have a breakfast place that is truly sublime. I love to get a counter seat and just sit there and watch Kurt (the owner and chef) move behind the stove. He has been doing this so long that every motion is automatic and perfectly efficient. Crack two eggs here, scoop out four pancakes there, flip the omlette over there, turn back and scoop out the oatmeal.

The breakfast here is the best I have ever had. Eggs are done just like you want them. Unlike most places on earth, the scrambled eggs are soft and fluffy, not a rubbery overcooked mess. But the true pinnacle is the pancakes. They are thick and airy, never chewy, not too sweet but with a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg. They are the perfect pancake. There is generally a huge list of specials, various egg scrambles, special french toast, and the ever present black bean cakes with salsa and eggs. Also don't miss the corn bread. Really, I mean it.

You have to get here early or be ready to wait in line. But if you are in the city, don't go anywhere else for breakfast. Life is too short.

Yank Sing

Walk down market street to the Rincon center, and you can get the best DIm Sum on the continent (although the stuff in Toronto is just as good).

Yank Sing serves up a spectacular assortment of steamed dumplings filled with meat, scallops, crab, scallions, and best of all, snow pea sprouts. The pea sprout dumplings are sometimes just sprouts and sometimes have chicken in them. You have to get them. They are incredible.

Other standards that come around on the carts include roast duck with pancakes, the wrapped sticky rice, long rice noodles with beef or shrimp, pork buns, and lettuce wraps with minced squab. All excellent.

The main problem we have in SF is wasting meals at places besides Yank Sing, and figuring out how to bring takeout on the plane.

The Ferry Farmer's Market

Stumbling out of Yank Sing, you can walk to the Ferry building and go to the farmer's market in the parking lot. This market may have moved inside the building, because the Ferry building has recently been renovated into a large up scale mall. If you can find it, you will be in the midst off the best that Northern California has to offer: more kinds of produce than you can ever imagine.

My farmer's market story: One time, we were in the city at the end of October and went to the market. In one of the stands was a huge sign with large tragic writing on it: Last Berries Until March. This is what California is about.

Marin Headlands

Just the other side of the Golden Gate bridge is a huge expanse of almost empty land that stands in stark contrast to the sprawling city that sits just across the bay. This is the Golden Gate Recreational Area, and the part of it that is closest to the Bay is the Marin Headlands. It's an awesome bike ride to cross the bridge, loop back around off of Route 101 and then climb the long hill up to the top of the headlands and look back over your shoulder at the city.

It's also cool to crawl around in the old military tunnels. But mostly what I like to do is sit there and just stare.


Ebisu is a small sushi joint in the Sunset district. The Sunset district has some of the best Asian food anywhere, but we're always going to Ebisu. Great rolls, fresh fish, good service, and pretty cheap for the area.

Ton Kiang

On the other side of Golden Gate Park from the Sunset is The Richmond, where the other great Asian food is in town.

Ton Kiang is a Dim Sum joint in the area, and while not quite as spectacular as Yank Sing, it does have the Shanghai Soup Meatball dumplings. So you gotta go.

Imperial Tea Court

Finally, in Chinatown, is this stylish tea house. They sell great tea and on weekends you can go there and sit in the completely serene atmosphere and sip as much tea as you'd like while hanging out with the old men and their caged birds. I've had no more relaxing experience in San Francisco.

Other Things I can't Expand On

- Burritos at La Taqueria in the Mission.
- Shalimar.
- Halloween in the Castro.
- Personal Shopping Service at Nordstrom.
- All the bike shops.

Things to Avoid

- For the love of God, do not go to House of Nanking
- The Slanted Door, unless you liked overpriced pretentious fusion food.
- Fisherman's Wharf
- The Greens. Great cookbook, lousy restaurant.

Posted by psu at 09:58 PM | Comments (0)

January 13, 2005

It's 2005. X11 Still Sucks

by peterb

Copy and paste in X? That's easy! Just highlight the text you want to copy, and choose "copy" from the menu, then paste it into whatever application you want to paste it into, assuming that application supports clipboard copy and paste. If it doesn't, then just highlight the text you want to copy, and then click the middle mouse button, thus copying the primary selection. It's also an important part of the X Window Experience to make sure that you always forget which buffer it is that you're trying to paste, and so accidentally paste the "wrong" one, thus making any copy and paste operation take twice as long. Like salmonella in chicken dishes, this adds exotic glamour to your boring workday.

X Windows.

It's not just that X11 is terrible -- everyone knows that. It's that the rest of the world has gotten so much better, and X...well, X has gotten better too, but not better enough.

I get this epiphany all the time. Last night, I was working on something late at night on my Powerbook, and it suddenly hits me, like a bolt from the blue: I'm using Unix. With a fabulous GUI. That looks and functions great instead of like crap, and then I sit down at a Linux desktop the next day and it's like being forced to eat rancid cabbage after a night dining at Hiro Sushi. It's awful. Complain about Windows XP all you like, but the core mechanics of using the GUI are about 640 times better than X11 (and somewhere out there, someone is having the same epiphany I am, only they're saying: "I'm using VMS. With a fabulous GUI".)

Gnome and KDE have come a long way from the primitive world of twm. And I don't want to just randomly tear down the work that went into them. But at some point, it feels like the right thing to do to point out when someone has decided that they should build their house on a foundation made entirely of loose sand. I'm configuring gnome the other day, and within 5 minutes something goes subtly wrong, and I have to start reading man pages on my .xinitrc file, and looking at the startx script. I mean, Christ on a crutch, it's 2005 and you're going to force me to exit and restart the windowing system completely to see if I can support a new resolution? Maybe I should go back to lovingly assembling opcodes by hand while I'm at it.

X11's continuing use as the open-source window system of choice is just another example of "worse is better" in action. X was a research project. It was never supposed to be a product that was meant to bring any benefit to an actual user. The whole idea of "let's build a windowing system that is all mechanism, and no policy" is utterly and didactically braindead from the word "go." It's like building a "car" where the driver must provide their own suspension and transmission. It's like building an alarm clock that requires the user to wire up buttons to set the time.

If you want to build something as usable as Windows or Mac OS, there's only one way to do it: tear down the house built on the loose sand foundation, and start designing a product, from the ground up, that is meant to be used and not just played with. Yes, that'll be a lot of effort. Tons of effort. Building software is hard. Building usable software is harder.

But using software that was poorly designed and implemented, like X11, is the hardest of all.

Posted by peterb at 06:34 PM | Comments (27)

January 12, 2005

10 Little Balls of Hate

by psu

Well, the Holiday Season is over, so let's get back to reality. Last week I gave you a sickeningly positive look at things that make my life bright. Here is the flip side.

My Car Radio

The car radio in the Chrysler Town and Country Limited is the single worst piece of human/machine interaction design that I have personally been subjected to in the last ten years. This is saying something, because I've used HP/UX in the last ten years. Some examples:

- The volume knob is your standard analog knob that controls a digital volume. But, there is no feedback about how high you are setting the volume, which can be annoying.

- If you are listening to the radio, to get to the CD player you hit a button labeled "Mode". If you are playing CDs, to get back to the radio you hit a button labeled "AM/FM". If you are playing a tape, to get back to the radio, you hit a button called "Eject". So, three modes, three buttons. And, they are all on different parts of the front panel.

- If you are listening to the radio, to change stations you hit the preset numbers. If are listening to CDs, to change the CD, you don't hit the radio preset numbers, you don't hit the CD numbers, you don't hit the seek button, you hit two of the FM station preset buttons that also have an up and down arrow on them. If you hit the buttons with the CD numbers on them, the disk ejects.


It's hard for me to imagine a customer service experience that is worse than that provided by the modern airline. This is very sad to me, since I really do love to travel. But, these days, even flying by myself with minimal baggage is about as enjoyable as a self-inflicted stomach wound. Add a few extra bags, children, and other incidentals, and just the overhead of getting on the plane is enough to make strong men contemplate suicide in the jetway.

Let's consider my most recent experience just getting through security. Here's what happened.

- We arrive at the security line, which is about 5 miles long.

- We wait 15 minutes to get right to the scanners. My wife uses a wheelchair, so the TSA lady says "come here to the wheelchair line" and shuttles us to a different line which is separated from the scanners by a glass wall. For some reason, she thinks that our toddler and I should go along.

- Because I am a dork, I think "that might be quicker!" and we scoot over.

- As we hit the wheelchair line, I am worried. It is not moving quickly, and I realize that the glass wall will keep me from getting bags into the scanner.

- It is taking 15 minutes to hand scan each wheelchair bound customer because once in the room, they have to take off all their coats, shoes, bags and so on, give them to the nice TSA person, who walks out into the crowd at the scanners, fights his way against traffic to the belt, puts the stuff on the belt in front of people who are now pretty irate, watch it go through, grab it again, and fight back to the hand scanning room.

- We finally get to the head of the line, and I have to take off all our bags, unpack the laptop, unpack all the jackets, get everything on the x-ray belt, take off my shoes, and then sit in the room for 10 minutes while everything goes through and they hand scan all of us plus the toddler, who doesn't really like the look of the wand.

- We get out of the room and put everything back together and I'm just about to step on the train, when the nice TSA person hands me my laptop which I had forgotten on the x-ray machine.

Result: Even though we arrived at the airport an hour and a half ahead of our flight time, no coffee, no snacks, no time to do anything but run to the gate as they board. This means that while we are sitting in a tin can at 35,000 feet for six hours we have to pay upwards of $10 for a snack that the food service people at a local high school would be ashamed to serve up.

There is no level of hate strong enough to capture exactly how I feel about airport security lines.

Using an iPod in the Car

The FM transmitters suck. The little tape doo-hickies are noisy and painful to use. It's a bad tradeoff. Also, it's hard to use the little iPod UI while driving. At least if you don't want to crash.

My Neurotic Dork Self

I got a shiny new Powerbook for work. I take it home, and where I used to get 4 bars of airport, now I only get 3. This bugs the hell out of me. I run all around the house trying to figure out how to get 4 bars like I used to get. I try to just turn off the signal strength meter, but this leaves a hole in my menu bar where 4 bars should be. I hate myself.

Broadcast Sports Television

It's not clear to me that there is any other endeavor where so many people work so hard to bring a product over the airwaves and into your home and fail so utterly to create content that is even at a tolerable level of quality. The sports broadcast seems to center around the notion that that broadcaster must constantly distract you from the fact that you are watching a sports event. The camera never stays still, the on-screen graphics are always changing and most importantly, there are sound effects synchronized with the moving camera and the dancing graphics. All of this, plus the announcers for whom English is apparently a second language.

The only thing you can say is that at least the sports content itself manages to transcend the crappy presentation. There is no other way I could have survived what FOX SPORTS does to baseball while I watched the Red Sox finally win one.

Save Points

The fact that save points are completely wrong is well known and well documented.

Here is a new twist: In the highly regarded game, Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando, you get to "continue points" every once in a while. The game allows you to save any time you want, but always brings you back at the most recent continue point if you die while playing. So, you have to play the same level over and over again because the camera didn't let you judge that lava jump quite right. If you quit the game and come back, the game puts you at the start of the level again, no matter how many continue points you have passed.

BUT, if you did make it past a continue point, the games does remember that you cleared that stage, so you don't have to fight the monsters again. In addition, it saves how many coins and other items you have collected. So, it basically saves everything except the 4 bytes of information it would need to remember where in the level you were located when you saved the game. This mechanism also allows you to collect an infinite amount of money, since you can save and restart between continue points and then go in and collect money over and over again.

The mind reels at how something like this made it past alpha testing.

Blister Pack

Since I stupidly acquired too much gaming hardware this Christmas, I've been dealing with packaging. I would like to officially go on record as recommending that the person who invented Blister Pack be retroactively killed by time traveling cyborgs.

Here we truly have a product that serves no one except the manufacturer. How can one justify putting product into a package that requires the user to completely destroy the package to get at the product? The best case is when the product is not only behind the blister pack, but also tied into the backing material with wire ties *and* has a cable of some sort (like in a game controller) which if destroyed renders the product useless. In these cases, you stand a good chance of destroying the thing you just bought just by opening the box it came in. Bravo. Brilliant. Kill them all.

Smooth Jazz

First you take what is arguably the greatest creative achievement in 20th century American Music and put it into a centrifuge to separate the soul of the music from its tasteless white liquid center. Then you package the tasteless center for mass consumption over distribution networks run by faceless conglomerates. What you get is the so called smooth jazz. This is great music to listen to if you have just had half of your frontal lobe removed, or if you want to make yourself suicidal. But it's not so useful for anything else.

Cell Phone Address Books

My current cell phone has this great feature. It wants me to organize all the phone numbers I have for a given person (home, cell, office, etc) in one address book entry. But it only allows me to speed dial one of them. No problem, I think, I'll just make another entry with the other number I want to dial. But this fails, because I can't enter the same number twice in the phone number database.

In other words, the morons who implemented this system built a database that is smart enough to separate address book entries from phone number entries in its main model, but they are not smart enough too allow a reference to a single phone number to exist in more than one address book entry because apparently they missed the lecture on foreign keys or simple pointers when they went to database school.

It's also not so great how the interface is inconsistent about when you have to tell it you are going to change a something by "editing it" and when you get to edit it directly.

It's also not so great how it takes 15 buttons pushes to find or change anything in the address book.

Don't tell me I should be syching this stuff with Outlook or whatever, because I already know that it won't work right and will waste my time.

Those Bar Code Stickers on CD and DVD Boxes

Here is another packaging item that serves no purpose but to piss you off. I mean, it's not like the bar code isn't already on the CD/DVD box somewhere. So, these stickers are completely redundant, but to make up for it, they make getting the CD take at least twice as long. No wonder Apple sold 200,000,000 downloads over the last couple of years.

I think the guy who invented this should be forced to challenge the blister pack guy to a two-up knife fight in a gas chamber.

Posted by psu at 01:08 PM | Comments (2)

January 11, 2005

iPod Shuffle Summary

by peterb

...courtesy of Dave Rochberg:

THOSE LIARS. They say "240 songs. A million different ways." But they clearly mean "240 songs, 40678853636470581204935759214868853 10172051259182827146069755969081486918925585104009100729728 52292382089024587009865914715605190573256314738159909845924475348 246302768811570537170462828632662123845654330726760861254 3777966913875945176039596821742361795433073703416459649696398651683 817722252221059768080852489940995605579171999666916004042 3896799800598079985264195119506681577622056215044851618236292196529 36960000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 different ways." Although it could be that their PRNG is entropy limited.
Posted by peterb at 08:59 PM | Comments (1)

January 10, 2005


by peterb


In the 1980's pinball manufacturers searched desperately for ways to stay relevant to a public that increasingly chose videogames over their mechanical cousins. After bankruptcies and consolidation, the industry settled on licensing movie and TV show trademarks as their path forward. But in the early '80s, they were still trying to be creative.
I'm back at my cliff
still throwing things off
In 1982, Williams introduced perhaps one of the most ill-advised pinball machines ever made: Hyperball. The game was basically Tempest without a monitor. Instead of moving a little vector shape around a playfield, you rotated a cannon left and right at the bottom of a pinball chassis. Instead of firing bolts of energy, you shot ball bearings at a rate of up to 250 balls per minute. (Pinball geeks get all snitty when you describe Hyperball as a pinball machine. They're wrong. It may use nonstandard rules, different sized balls, and have no bumpers, but it's a pinball machine by the "how would your mother describe this device?" rule.)
I listen to the sounds they make
on their way down
The game was incredibly loud, even by arcade standards. Each ball was launched with a loud THUNK-fwip, targets clattered as you hit their flaps, balls smacked onto wooden pieces of the playfield. And of course, ball bearings that missed targets collided with newly fired shots, and ricocheted loudly off of the glass plate covering the playfield. Multiply that by the rapid rate of fire, and the noise was truly deafening. Perhaps overcompensating for this mechanical cacophony, the electronic sound effects of the game were equally loud, a pastiche of samples borrowed from Defender and Robotron (such as this one).
I follow with my eyes 'til they crash
I imagine what my body would sound like
slamming against those rocks
The mechanics of the game were simple and twitchy. The playfield had a number of "target" flaps with letters in front of them. Red lightning-bolt shaped lights stretched from the targets down to your cannon. As the game went on, the lights illuminated, one by one, marching downward in columns. If you shot a ball into the flap or hole associated with a column, the bottom most light went out; the effect was as if you were "beating back" the lights. If a lightning bolt reached the bottom of the playfield, you lost a life.

I'm simplifying the game a bit -- you also had smart bombs, for example, which destroyed everything on the playfield -- but that's the basic idea.

and when it lands
will my eyes
be closed or open?
The gun was not fully automatic, and had two triggers, once for each hand. You had to pull a trigger for each ball fired. The gun could be fired at a faster rate than you could pull the triggers, so this led to all sorts of odd "chording" finger patterns on the triggers which could induce terminal carpal tunnel syndrome in about 10 minutes.

Hyperball was designed by Steve Ritchie, who designed a number of games, including the classic (or infamous, depending on your taste) Black Knight. Hyperball occupied a strange niche, and it showed. It wasn't videogame enough to draw in videogame players with regularity, and it wasn't pinball enough to draw in pinball players either. I tried it a couple of times to slake my curiosity, and then left it alone, saving my quarters for other, more traditional machines. Because of the tremendous beating each game exerts on the chassis and mechanical components, there aren't too many of them left in good working condition.

Only 4,444 of these machines were ever produced.

Additional Resources

Posted by peterb at 06:44 PM | Comments (2)

January 07, 2005

Game Geek Quiz Answers

by peterb

It's Friday, which means it's time for the answers to the Game Geek Quiz. If you haven't tried the quiz yet, click here if you want to see the questions without spoilers. Otherwise, read on!

The original questions have been included in italics. The "official" right answer is in boldface. I've tried to provide context for every answer.

1. What was "Contra-Dextra Avenue"?

In Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, the first game in the series, you saw the message "Contra-Dextra Avenue" when you took your first step on the very bottom level of the dungeon. This was a clue on how to find the wizard Werdna's lair. "Dextra," from the Latin word meaning "right" and "contra" meaning against. At every intersection, turn left. Simple.

2. What was the first (computer) adventure game that took a text adventure interface and added significant graphics?

This was one of the easier questions: Sierra On-Line's Mystery House, authored by Naked Roberta Williams, is generally considered to be the first text adventure with graphics (fairly crude black and white drawings).

3. Who wrote most of the games for Sirius Software (example game: Gorgon). First name only is OK.

The prolific Nasir Gebelli. He also wrote Star Cruiser, Horizon V, and many other Apple ][ games. In addition, he was the main programmer on -- wait for it -- the early Final Fantasy games, as well as The Secret of Mana and other Square/Enix works.

Stubborn as a M.U.L.E.

Stubborn as a M.U.L.E.

4. Who saw farther?

I expected more people to know this one: Electronic Arts. They pushed an ad campaign which portrayed game developers as artists, not programmers. The poster was very soft focus, with Bill Budge looking all butch, and Dani Bunten back when she was preoperative Dan Bunten, and the Free Fall Associates guys looking all thoughtful and clever. I actually had 3 copies of the poster until just a few years ago. Of course, now that I've thrown it away, it's worth money. The scan of the poster is courtesy Gotcha, a site well worth visiting.

5. Finish this phrase: "Ho eyoh he ___"

Hum. Iolo the Bard periodically sings this throughout the original Ultima. The four continents in that game are also named Ho, Eyoh, He, and Hum.

One of the things that disturbed me about the Ultima games on an almost subliminal level was how through at least Ultima IV, the entire geography of the planet would change and no one would say anything about it.

6. This platform game was one of the earliest games to be ported to nearly every popular home computer (and game platform) in existence in 1983. It was famous for having versions on just about everything, from the Vic-20 up through all the Atari consoles and computers, to the Apple ][, and beyond. What was its name?

Robot Attack

Robot Attack

This question, I've decided, is unfair because it is simply too vague to come up with a definitive answer. The answer I was looking for was Miner 2049'er. The following platforms had ports of this game: Atari 400/800/XL, Atari 5200, Apple ][, Atari 2600, Colecovision, Commodore 64, Vic-20, TI 99/4a, IBM PC, Gameboy, Thompson MO-5, Super Cassette Vision, and a Tiger Pocket LCD version. But basically, this is the one question in the entire quiz that I regret asking. It was a bad question.

I learned over at ClassicGaming that the author of Miner 2049'er was also the author of a number of disturbingly enjoyable games for the TRS-80, including a really playable version of Berzerk called Robot Attack. I remember playing it in the local Radio Shack and being captivated.



7. In the superb chess-like game Archon, each piece had a counterpart. The dark goblin was the opposite of the human Knight. The dragon was opposed by the Phoenix. The basilisk was opposed by the unicorn. What light-side piece corresponded to the dark-side banshee?



The Banshee's opposite was the Valkyrie. This question is tough even for Archon addicts, because the Valkyrie is so unlike the Banshee. Most of the pairings are between creatures which have fairly similar mechanics. The banshee has an area of effect "scream" which surrounds her, whereas the Valkyrie throws spears from a long distance away.

8. How can you open the jewel-encrusted egg without damaging the clockwork canary?

In Zork I, just give it to the thief.

9. Rick and Ilsa. Heloise and Abelard. Guybrush and ______?

From The Secret of Monkey Island. Guybrush's crush was Elaine. Christina earns Bonus Geek Points for remembering her last name.

David's Midnight Magic

David's Midnight Magic

10. Eric Snider wrote the classic card game Eric's Ultimate Solitaire for the Mac, later ported to other platforms. Solitaire, of course, is a game that people play without computers, and Eric's Ultimate Solitaire is a computer implementation of that game. In the early 1980's, Eric's older brother David wrote a successful game which took another non-computer game and put it into software. What was it? (CMU alumni who know the answer because you are friends with Eric are asked not to give this one away.)

Pinball games, like card games, are not computer games (you can debate this with me, but you will be wrong). David Snider wrote David's Midnight Magic. Pinball fans who have played the game recognize it as a nearly exact replica of what was possibly the best pinball machine ever made, Black Knight.

11. Leisure Suit Larry was actually a with-graphics reworking of an earlier, text-only game. What was the name of that game?

The emotionally scarring Softporn Adventure.



12. In Silas Warner's classic game Castle Wolfenstein, you played a prisoner trying to escape from a Nazi castle. Patrolling the castle were scores of Nazi soldiers. There were also SS officers who would try to track you down once they discovered corpses of common soldiers. The SS were very hard to kill because...?

This one was guessable: they wear bulletproof vests.

13. In the game The Prisoner (and Prisoner 2), what ASCII character was used to represent the player?

"I am not a number, I am a free man!" The symbol used to represent the Prisoner was #.



14. The arcade game Tron put the name of a computer language at the bottom of the screen to identify what "level" you were on; each time you cleared all four stages, the language changed. What language was used for the very first level?

RPG, a report generation language developed by IBM. There are actually 12 named levels, as follows: RPG, COBOL, BASIC, FORTRAN, SNOBOL, PL/1, Pascal, Algol, Assembly, OS, JCL, and "User". After level 12, all the levels are named "user".

Me, I could only rarely make it past SNOBOL. I didn't think Tron was a very good game, but there was a sister product called Discs of Tron that was actually superb. It's rather hard to play well on an emulator, because the controls aren't really suited for it.

15. What were the dungeons in the game Realm of Impossibility named after, thematically?

Tartarus, Gehenna, Elysium, and so on -- the lands of the dead.

16. In the Atari 800 game Star Raiders, what color did the screen turn when you turned on your shields?

All spaceships have to have blue shields. I'm pretty sure there's a law about that.



17. Everyone knows the story about how Warren Robinett hid his name in the Atari 2600 Adventure cartridge as a hard-to-get easter egg. Most people who played it obsessively have done it, I'd guess -- you have to go into the black castle, find an invisible dot, drag the dot back across the dungeon, and then figure out that it lets you walk through a certain wall, if you're dragging it behind you. Your reward is seeing the creator's name, in glowing chromaluminescent letters. (And if you've never tried Adventure, try this Flash version). Fewer people remember that the three cute duckies fearsome dragons who chase you have names. What are they?

The yellow, green, and red dragons were Yorgie, Grundle, and Rhindle. They each had different roles, too -- Grundle was the God of Guarding Miscellaneous Objects (like the magnet), the fearsome Rhindle generally guarded the white key, and Yorgie guards the chalice, but for some reason never adequately explained is afraid of the yellow key.

18. This Atari computer game used the theme song from the Alfred Hitchcock TV show ("Funeral March of the Marionettes"; MIDI sample is not actually from the game) for its title screen. What game was it?

Still the best reason to install an Atari 800 emulator on your computer twenty years later, this game was called Shamus. The Underdogs describes the game as Adventure meets Berzerk, and I think that's a fair assessment.

19. This game had a cult following that lasted well into the 1990's, despite the fact that it was practically unplayable. You and your opponent each had a shield and an axe. The camera was situated directly above you. From this odd top-down view, you could independently control your left arm, your right arm, and move around. Combat consisted of flailing into the opponent while "blood" spurted until pieces started falling off. Then the guy who was losing would run away, and you would chase him hopelessly for 10 minutes cursing the controls. What was the name of this game?

The Bilestoad. There's an interesting interview with the developer, Marc Goodman, where he talks about how he implemented the game. "Datamost only sold around 5,000 copies of the game. I've gotten email from a lot of people and even met people who know and love the game and you know what? I've never met or talked to anyone who had an official copy."

20. How many hostages did you have to rescue to have a 'perfect' round in the original Choplifter?

There are 16 hostages per level -- four in each building. I probably lost more hostages by squishing them than by being shot down.

I hope you enjoyed the quiz, and the memories. As of the time I posted the answers, there were correct guesses made to 12 of the 20 questions (13, if you count jon's near miss on my poorly-formed Miner 2049'er question). I was surprised that no one got the Wizardry or Ultima related questions, but maybe that's just an indication of the poor way in which I spent my time as a teenager. If you're so inclined, throw your own questions down in the comments below. It can be your turn to try to stump me, instead.

Posted by peterb at 03:57 PM | Comments (0)

January 06, 2005

Great Moments in Cooking, #47

by peterb

I actually did this a few months ago. I think of it every time I cook now.

  • I turned on the oven.
  • I put a cast iron skillet in the oven to heat up.
  • When the skillet was hot, I carefully put a hot mitt on my left hand.
  • I opened the oven and firmly grasped the handle of the skillet with my right hand.

Thankfully, there was no permanent damage. But misery loves company, so: what's the stupidest thing you've ever done in the kitchen?

Posted by peterb at 07:14 PM | Comments (5)

Metapost: Minor cleanup

by peterb

Many of my articles have small captioned images that show up, when you visit the site, offset next to a paragraph, nicely formatted. I just realized, however, that since the RSS feeds don't really support stylesheets, these look completely wrong to anyone who is reading the site via a newsreader. So I'm fixing them, which may make a number of old posts appear to be marked as new. Sorry.

Also, although I've got I format that seems to work well in most RSS aggregators, the images still look wrong on bloglines. If you've got a bright idea about the right way to fix this, please send email to blog -at- tleaves.com

Posted by peterb at 02:47 PM | Comments (0)

January 05, 2005

The Game Geek Quiz

by peterb

Googling for the answers is cheating. Some questions are easy. Others are harder. I don't believe any are impossible. If you answer them all right, you win nothing but the pride (or the shame, depending on how you want to view it) of spending such a large percentage of your brain cells on videogame and computer trivia. Feel free to contribute guesses in the comments.

1. What was "Contra-Dextra Avenue"?

2. What was the first (computer) adventure game that took a text adventure interface and added significant graphics?

3. Who wrote most of the games for Sirius Software (example game: Gorgon). First name only is OK.

4. Who saw farther?

5. Finish this phrase: "Ho eyoh he ___"

6. This platform game was one of the earliest games to be ported to nearly every popular home computer (and game platform) in existence in 1983. It was famous for having versions on just about everything, from the Vic-20 up through all the Atari consoles and computers, to the Apple ][, and beyond. What was its name?



7. In the superb chess-like game Archon, each piece had a counterpart. The dark goblin was the opposite of the human Knight. The dragon was opposed by the Phoenix. The basilisk was opposed by the unicorn. What light-side piece corresponded to the dark-side banshee?

8. How can you open the jewel-encrusted egg without damaging the clockwork canary?

9. Rick and Ilsa. Heloise and Abelard. Guybrush and ______?

10. Eric Snider wrote the classic card game Eric's Ultimate Solitaire for the Mac, later ported to other platforms. Solitaire, of course, is a game that people play without computers, and Eric's Ultimate Solitaire is a computer implementation of that game. In the early 1980's, Eric's older brother David wrote a successful game which took another non-computer game and put it into software. What was it? (CMU alumni who know the answer because you are friends with Eric are asked not to give this one away.)

11. Leisure Suit Larry was actually a with-graphics reworking of an earlier, text-only game. What was the name of that game?



12. In Silas Warner's classic game Castle Wolfenstein, you played a prisoner trying to escape from a Nazi castle. Patrolling the castle were scores of Nazi soldiers. There were also SS officers who would try to track you down once they discovered corpses of common soldiers. The SS were very hard to kill because...?

13. In the game The Prisoner (and Prisoner 2), what ASCII character was used to represent the player?

14. The arcade game Tron put the name of a computer language at the bottom of the screen to identify what "level" you were on; each time you cleared all four stages, the language changed. What language was used for the very first level?

15. What were the dungeons in the game Realm of Impossibility named after, thematically?

16. In the Atari 800 game Star Raiders, what color did the screen turn when you turned on your shields?



17. Everyone knows the story about how Warren Robinett hid his name in the Atari 2600 Adventure cartridge as a hard-to-get easter egg. Most people who played it obsessively have done it, I'd guess -- you have to go into the black castle, find an invisible dot, drag the dot back across the dungeon, and then figure out that it lets you walk through a certain wall, if you're dragging it behind you. Your reward is seeing the creator's name, in glowing chromaluminescent letters. (And if you've never tried Adventure, try this Flash version). Fewer people remember that the three cute duckies fearsome dragons who chase you have names. What are they?

18. This Atari computer game used the theme song from the Alfred Hitchcock TV show ("Funeral March of the Marionettes"; MIDI sample is not actually from the game) for its title screen. What game was it?

19. This game had a cult following that lasted well into the 1990's, despite the fact that it was practically unplayable. You and your opponent each had a shield and an axe. The camera was situated directly above you. From this odd top-down view, you could independently control your left arm, your right arm, and move around. Combat consisted of flailing into the opponent while "blood" spurted until pieces started falling off. Then the guy who was losing would run away, and you would chase him hopelessly for 10 minutes cursing the controls. What was the name of this game?

20. How many hostages did you have to rescue to have a 'perfect' round in the original Choplifter?

Answers will be posted in the next few days. The answers have been posted, but feel free to make your guesses below, anyway, before peeking at the answer key.

Posted by peterb at 06:25 PM | Comments (12)

January 04, 2005

Reveries on Reveilles

by peterb

Arcade games used to make noise. They don't, anymore. Not really.

I'm not talking about videogames, of course, but arcade games. Being of a certain age means that I've actually played non-video arcade games, other than pinball, something that I suspect most people under 30 haven't done.

Upper Deck

Upper Deck

My favorites were the shooting gallery games. The mechanism in the era in which I was playing was light-based; the games had a small light bulb in the gun that flashed when you pulled the trigger, and light sensors on the targets. Earlier versions of these games didn't use light, but were entirely mechanical. These games were marvelous orchestras of industrial noise. The points were tracked by clunky odometer-like wheels with numbers on them that made a satisfying ka-CHUNK ka-CHUNK noise when they spun, not a soulless LED. As targets (little metal or plastic figured of hares, or bears, or birds) moved into and out of the target area, they would click in to place, THUNK, or smoothly whiiiiiiiiirrrrrrrrrr across the field. Scores were often announced with the sound of bells. Many of these devices had electronic samples, as well, especially in later years, but the physical nature of the device was not completely abstracted.

Nearly as much fun were the sports games. The baseball games, with their core mechanic of pitching and batting resembling pinball, were extremely well-suited to the medium. The machines encouraged abuse. The sheer physicality of slamming on the "hit" button and hearing the metallic crack of the bat on the ball was addicting.

There is not, of course, a clear line dividing video games from their mechanical cousins. Early videogames used many of the same mechanical parts as the other games. I was thinking of one of these games in particular, the other day, because I couldn't remember its name, and it was driving me insane. I described it to a friend of mine, and in doing so got specific enough to be able to research it and find the game.

The game was a timed vertical scrolling shooter. You moved a crosshair left or right to control where your missiles landed (missiles took about a second to land, so there was some timing involved). Scrolling down the screen at you were various targets -- bridges, oil depots, the occasional airplane -- and your mission was to shoot as much as you could in the allotted time. Beyond that, I only remembered a few things about the game. First, it was in black and white. In at least one arcade I frequented, the game had a red filter placed on the screen so that everything was pink and black, rather than white and black. Second, the sound effects in the game were mostly modulated white noise.

Sky Raider (click to enlarge)

Sky Raider (click to enlarge)

A little research gave me the name I was looking for: Sky Raider. It was the first continuously-scrolling video game. It was implemented on Atari's 6502 black and white hardware. The strangest thing about this platform had to be the mirror. It wasn't a direct-view game. The game, on the video monitor, was upside down and backwards, and in a trapezoid form. This was reflected on a mirror which was mounted at an oblique angle; the overall effect was a pretty good simulation of 3D for the time. You can play the game in the MAME emulator, but the sound doesn't work, and you have to be willing to play it upside down and backwards. And although Sky Raiders was an electronic videogame with electronic sounds, it had a clunky control yoke that made satisfying little noises as you manuevered your crosshairs left or right. Those, of course, can't be adequately emulated in software.

Somehow without the sound it's just not the same.

Additional Resources

Posted by peterb at 07:51 PM | Comments (2)

January 03, 2005

Dinnertime Disasters

by peterb

From a culinary standpoint, I was having a good weekend. I had a guest who had some dietary restrictions; to wit, no saturated fats at all, minimal unsaturated fats, low cholesterol foods only. Since I, typically, am someone who starts nearly every recipe with "Take a cup of heavy cream and..." I had to do a little more planning to get the weekend's meals ready.

I settled on primarily Japanese cuisine, on the theory that I could get the needed ingredients, and had a variety of dishes that met the low-fat requirements. Making dashi is always fun and easy, and miso soup is always appreciated. I also took the opportunity to try some things I hadn't done before. Every time I go to Chaya, they are out of kimpira, so I made it myself to find out what it was like (it was yummy).

I also picked a recipe out of Tokiko Suzuki's book Japanese Homestyle Cooking for Pomfret broiled in Saikyo-way, a miso and sake mixture. Knowing how Suzuki is a stickler for procedure, I was careful to follow her instructions religiously, to the letter. I was somewhat suspcious of her instructions to salt the fish (and later, clean off the salt) before sandwiching the fish between saikyo-wai covered cheesecloth and preserving it for two days, but I trusted her. I admit I departed from her brief in one way: I decided to skip the "place the filet on a chysanthemum leaf" presentation.

The dish turned out bad. Not "unpleasant," not "unfortunate," but a complete and utter culinary calamity, salty to the point of being inedible. Amusingly, I had bought a nice filet of bacalhao a few days earlier as well, and I'm pretty sure I would have ended up with something more edible had I just soaked that filet for a couple of hours and then broiled it. ("But don't you have to soak bacalhao for 2 days before enough salt is leached out so that it's actually edible?" I hear you ask. Yes. That's my point.) I forced myself to choke it down as punishment for serving my guests something I hadn't tried successfully first. I was fairly mortified.

So either Suzuki-san's recipe leaves something to be desired or more likely I, being illiterate and stupid, misread something and made some critical mistake. My sister relies on a variant of this dish as a staple, so I can certainly believe I did something wrong, and I should try it again. That's not what I'm getting at here.

My question is: what do you do when this happens in front of guests? Am I simply naive for trying something new when someone else's meal is at stake? Or is there some graceful way to recover from this situation? Beg for forgiveness? Order a pizza? At our table we had made many other dishes so people didn't go hungry, but it was still a humbling experience.

If you've ever wondered what crow tastes like, I can assure you it tastes like very, very salty fish.

Posted by peterb at 10:48 AM | Comments (2)

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