February 28, 2005


by peterb

As you enjoy your breakfast today, please also enjoy Things That Can Kill You, Volume 2: Aflatoxins.

Er, hope you aren't having peanuts.

If you have suggested topics for future shows, feel free to send email to life - at - tleaves.com

Posted by peterb at 12:23 AM | Comments (0)

February 25, 2005

No Free Silver Bullet Lunch

by psu

So Pete took me to lunch today with some fellow software engineering buddies. While munching our rather excellent Indian buffet food, one of the engineers related an incident that happened to him on vacation. He was walking back to his hotel room, and he overhears one side of a phone conversation that is going like this:

We can either fix more bugs to make the system more stable or we can develop new features but not both.

Anyone who has done any level of commercial software development is familiar with this conversation. What I do is very different from what Pete's buddies do, but the conversation was completely familiar to me. It doesn't matter if the project is the next PS2 game or the control system for the next Airbus airliner. If you sit in a room with the developers and the managers, they are probably having this conversation. My theory about the origin of this conversation is overly simplistic not filled with deep insight. But, here it is anyway.

Like most engineering problems, software projects can be thought of as being managed across three different constraint axes: new features, general quality, and time to market. The goal is always to ship out as much as you can as fast as you can and have it work as well as you can. I think where people get into trouble with software is when they begin to believe that the three constraints above are more flexible than they really are. In particular, it's easy to convince yourself that change is cheap. I think even experienced engineers who really understand software development can fall into this trap.

Consider the following thoughts that all of us have had:

I can't believe they didn't fix this simple bug


Just add this simple new feature. It will take you a day.

I've listed these two statements separately, but they are really asking for the same thing: a small, seemingly localized change that would make the product better. The problem is that in software, small localized changes almost always have non local effects that you didn't expect. To use a cliched analogy, it's like tossing a rock in a pond. The initial splash is small, but the ripples go on for a long time. While this seems obvious, software is still perceived as being flexible and easily changed. The reality is that every single change you make to a piece of code has a high probability of breaking something that someone doesn't want broken. Therefore, no matter how trivial it seems, it is likely to be expensive to qualify. In other words, all change is hard. There are no shallow bugs.

I think these two relatively innocent thoughts are the core cause of the phone conversation that Pete's friend overheard. When a team is put into the position of needing to deal with two streams of changes, life can just get intractable. Consider that on the one hand, the team has to deal with all the non-local effects of the bug fixes that they must make to keep the system running. On the other hand, they must also deal with the effects of the new feature development, and then on top of that, the effects of the bug fixes on the new features. So instead of just trying to handle the first order effects of fixing bugs, you have to deal with second and third order effects as well. Eventually, every new request becomes a fountain of pain and torture until finally the engineering team will threaten to storm out of the project in protest. This is when the conversation happens.

Being an engineer, my feeling is that at some level this conversation is inevitable because in software we just don't know how to specify what we want early enough to avoid the thrash later. Often it's the case that the only way to know if you've built the right thing is to build it and see. User interfaces (and computer games) fall into this category of project. As long as this is true, we'll have late changes and late cycle thrash, and people will be on their cell phones in Florida pleading with their managers to start cutting down the scope.

I think that the shrink wrap world is in slightly better shape with regard to this than other areas of software development. This is because in shrink wrap, the time to market rules. You must turn the product around every year on the year to keep the revenue stream coming in to keep the product alive. In this environment, it can be easier to explain why features need to be cut or compromised to make the ship date. Of course, the flip side is that shrink wrap software tends to also compromise on overall quality to make the ship date. But for now, users seem to be willing to take that tradeoff.

I think the software services industry has it harder, because there the time constraint is slightly looser, but the pressure to implement everything the customer wants is much stronger. Therefore, you end up with long deathmarches trying to patch together huge custom systems to jump through all the right hoops and still not be too late. That's a tough world to be in.

Finally, I think that the general principle here: that changing software is expensive, cannot be understated. People seem reluctant to accept this fact about software even though they are happy to accept it in other aspects of life. If you are having work done on your house, you don't expect to be able to change the requirements on the contractor without paying extra money. And yet most people, even experienced software engineers, have a hard time not thinking that just one more tweak to the code will be easy and cheap. Learning to estimate and accept these costs will go a long way to improving software, the development process, and thus reduce the number of times you hear the conversation.

Posted by psu at 10:03 PM | Comments (3)

February 24, 2005

I'm With Stupid

by peterb

Video games, like pornography, are addictive. On some level, everyone knows that. That's why we spend so much money on them. It's why dried-up Congressmen take time off from seducing their new pages to hold hearings on ratings systems. It's why tearful wives pour their hearts out to strangers, telling them how their husbands spend all their time online, waving "swords" at "worms" in Everquest. It's why videogame magazines are sealed in plastic, so that the mark doesn't get a peek at the goods without paying.

Videogames are like porn, and porn is a dirty, smelly, wet business. If you have to touch anything to do with videogames, you'd better have some alcohol nearby to wash and disinfect afterwards. I've seen a lot of sordid things. I know how cheap and tawdry the retail gaming business is. It's a tease machine, all hype and silicone designed to activate a compulsion in the poor john not just to go buy the lousy game, but to go to the store, right now and buy it today, at full price. And like porn, when you get it home from the store and look at it in the cold light of day, the main thought in your head is often "What the hell was I thinking?"

And also like porn, if you're not willing to mail order, you've got to go to a filthly little shack frequented by shady characters. Today, I was going to my local Electronics Boutique.

The manager of that store is a rat bastard, a filthy little troglodyte with grasping, sweaty hands and murine face. Some people end up in retail because they love it, and spend their time in the company of customers and friends, placidly watching the days go by. But there is another type of man, a man who represents the dark side of retail. He is in it because he loves the money. Not the salary, no, that's not it. The physical contact. He'd have been a banker, but the banks are too sharp to let this type of man near the holiest of holies. In their job interview he'll take a blood test, or a urine sample, and then they've got his number. A security guard comes in and beats him away from the branch manager like a rotten cur. Hair dishheveled, tie loose, he stumbles away, like a vampire that's just been kicked out of the blood bank. Eventually, the smell of cash brings him to a videogame store, and he becomes the manager.

Oh, you know he's here after hours. He has to count the money, and recount it. He touches and caresses it. There's not a dollar bill sent back to Corporate that he hasn't physically rubbed. If he could, he'd run his tongue down every picture of George Washington that he could find.

I knew the man was in there went I went into the store, but when you're buying pornography you can't be too choosy about the vendor. "How bad can it be?" you ask yourself. As long as the man keeps his hands out of his pants while you're in the store, you'll make it through this. But I'd forgotten about this store. I'd forgotten that in a world full of evil, demented videogame store managers, this store's manager was something special.

This atavistic, evil dwarf is the perfect embodiment of EB Games and all that it stands for. It's not just that they're greedy, and are after your money. That's just America. But if you look at how videogames are sold in this country, the margin goes to the big publishers. This means that a place like EB Games makes just as little as a small electronics store, but with higher overhead and more inventory. The way they compensate for this is by exploiting the consumer's desire for convenience by buying their games back cheap and selling them high. It's built in to their business model that the way for them to make money is to sell you games that you don't want, specifically so that you'll sell the games back to EB at a huge loss, which will then sell them to someone else at $5 under retail. The only way they can stay in business is to squeeze every last cent from the games they sell, and re-sell, and sell again, like water from a dishtowel.

And that money is pure profit.

He was talking when I came in. That's one of the things that makes him particularly bad -- he's always talking. I go to the demo kiosk running Gran Turismo 4, trying to ignore him, but it doesn't work. It never works.

He's talking about World of Warcraft, talking to some poor dumb bastard, a brute in black leather and white sneakers. This guy was a football player in high school, but a busted rotator cuff queered his chance for a scholarship, and now he works part time for the car wash. The manager wheedles at him, talking about how much fun they'll have playing the game together. "Oh, sure, we all play on the same server. Isn't that right, Ray?" Ray is a ferret-in-training behind the counter, 18 years old, who nods vigorously whenever his rat-bastard of a manager says anything particularly hateful or odious. He's nodding now, his head flopping on his neck like it's broken.

"Well, I'm not too sure," says the dope. "I don't have no credit card." The manager's hands twitch, twice, like fish about to be gutted. "Well, that's not such a big deal. After all, the first month's free. Do you have a friend with a credit card?" Big Dumb lets on as it might be the case that his woman has a card, and that's all this hideous, deformed rodent needs to hear: "Well, problem solved then. You're going to love it! I should remind you that there's no return on this game." He gently shoves the poor bastard towards the cash register, where Ray is waiting to complete the molestation. I want to leap over the monitor and grab the guy and bring him to his senses. "Get ahold of yourself, man. Can't you see what they're doing to you? You've got to flee! These bastards are going to drug you, roll you, sodomize you, and dump your body in Panther Hollow. It's not safe!"

But I'm paralyzed by shock at the audacity of this grinning little homunculous, and they complete their fleecing of the rube. This is beyond even the banality of EB's workaday evil. He can't re-buy and re-sell this game at a profit. He's just selling this guy a game he can't actually afford out of sheer cruelty. He's the sort of man that electrocutes dogs, just to see what will happen. Jesus Christ! I've got to get out of this place, or they'll come for me next. I cut and run.

In The Exchange, down the street, bored teenagers lethargically sell videogames and music to customers. They keep the games near the door, to make sure the trenchcoats can get in and out fast, and not make the normal, healthy music customers feel uneasy. They are not efficient, but neither do they speak much, which counts for a lot.

I picked up my copy of GT4 there, and headed home. The night air was cold. Up the block, at the Electronics Boutique, the stars seemed a little dimmer. A hungry darkness crouched there, and was waiting.

Additional Resources

Posted by peterb at 06:28 PM | Comments (2)

February 23, 2005

Workflow Adjustments

by psu
It's been about a year, and every new year it's a good time to evaluate your digital picture workflow and try to streamline it. Well, that is, if you are a complete dork. Anyway, I test workflow tools so you don't have to.

I had been using two basic tools to process my pictures: iView Media Pro and Photoshop. iView is a great cataloging tool, and Photoshop is very good at all kinds of image processing. But, neither of them excels at quick proofing and editing of photos. I was finding it tedious to import 300 shots, generate my proof jpegs, proof them, and then edit both sets of files down. So, where would I find a good browsing tool? Reading www.robgalbraith.com, I found that they use a program called Photo Mechanic, so I tried it out. Turns out, it is really good at browsing, editing, and tagging.


Once it loads your pictures, the Photo Mechanic browser is very very fast. It has a convenient import tool that lets you suck the pictures off the card, rename them the way you want and put them into a folder. For RAW files, PM conveniently lets you browse the pictures using the embedded preview thumbnails that are generally embedded in Nikon NEF files. For D70 files, these are full sized JPEG files, making browsing very nice. Generally I import pictures a few hundred at a time, which PM handles well, without bogging down.

So, where I used to bring my RAW files into iView just to run a batch conversion script, I can now browse the pictures directly in PM. This saves the import step and the conversion steps, and I can evaluate the pictures at full resolution. Which brings us to editing.


The editing UI in PM is great. As I said above, the browser is fast. It is easily 2 or 3 times faster than either iView or Photoshop. Also, it lets me edit full sized JPEGs and it has a nice side by side view for comparing similar shots. Love it.


Finally, Photo Mechanic has a nice tool for tagging pictures with meta-data. This is different than iView, where annotating pictures in the catalog was easy, but applying those annotations to the files was a multi-step process. PM has a "stationery pad" where you can enter the meta-data for a bunch of pictures and tag them all in one batch. It's easy and fast and supports all the prevailing EXIF and ITPC standards. PM, like all the other tools, does have problems with manufacturer specific EXIF tags. But this is all part of the meta-data problem on which I have ranted before. This won't change unless the manufacturers stop deciding to screw users.

The only annoyance with Photo Mechanic is that at the time I started using it, there was no way to fire off a batch script to Photoshop to convert a large mass of high resolution RAW and JPEG files into the little thumbnails I use for my web site and auxiliary catalog. I spent some time trying to solve this problem with Photoshop scripts (The Dr. Brown script is nice), Nikon View, Nikon Capture and Capture One. I didn't like any of these tools. I wanted to be able to fire off my old droplets using my browser.

As if to read my mind, the Photo Mechanic developer added this functionality to version 4.3.3 of the product.

New Workflow

Here's what I do now:

  • Copy pictures from the card to a dated folder using Photo Mechanic. Rename the pictures into a fixed scheme: prefix-date-serial-number.

  • Edit and tag using Photo Mechanic

  • Send the RAW files through my conversion droplet. Send the JPEG files through my resize droplet. This generates small proof JPEG files.

  • Import the small proofs into iView for further selection and web site work.

This is pretty much the same as the previous workflow, but with only one iView catalog. I found I was always using the thumbnail catalog for everything anyway because none of it was ever offline. I keep everything else basically the same. Lots of backups, web site generation and so on can stay unchanged.

So there you have it. Photo Mechanic for import and editing, Photoshop for image processing, iView for cataloging. Someday someone will make one tool that does all three of these things well. But until then this toolset is pretty usable. Now if only there were a convenient way to link the thumbnail catalog back to the original files. Maybe next year.

Posted by psu at 05:04 PM | Comments (7)

February 22, 2005

Things That Can Kill You

by peterb

For your podcasting pleasure, I present: Things that Can Kill You, Volume 1: Semiautomatic Handguns. It's one minute and nine seconds in duration, and I promise it will be the highlight of your day.

Next week: Aflatoxins.

Posted by peterb at 07:36 AM | Comments (2)

February 21, 2005

Shatner Addendum

by peterb

I asked William Shatner what he thought about my last article and he said:

The Sony Playstation 2! They spend millions of dollars slagging the Dreamcast, and then all the games are jaggy and ugly! And all the gaming magazines talk about how great the lousy graphics are! I can't get behind that!
Just thought you should know.

Posted by peterb at 10:19 PM | Comments (0)

Gran Annoioso

by peterb

Tomorrow, Gran Turismo 4 will be released for the Playstation 2. And, like a good corporate drone, I am probably going to buy it, even though I don't expect it to actually be good. Because the previous game in the series, Gran Turismo 3, really wasn't very good, either.

The Emperor, you see, had no clothes.

I'm going to buy it, of course, not only because of my well-documented obsession for playing video games, but also because I'm specifically a sucker for driving games. "I will never own these cars," I say to myself. "I will think about buying an Evolution VIII, and then at the last moment will realize that buying a car that gets 10 miles to the gallon isn't very practical, and I'll get something sensible instead. I will never drive on Laguna Seca," I say. But I can pretend. "Vroom! Vrooooom."

Perhaps GT4, as the well-greased hype machine spins it, will really be all that and a bag of chips. Perhaps it will change my perspective on driving games forever, the way Project Gotham Racing did. Perhaps it will be the best game of the year.

But of course, they said that about the execrable Black and White. They said that about the unplayably bad Ninja Gaiden. And they said it about Gran Turismo 3, which was, in the end, just a sort of vaguely OK driving game. So I'm not holding my breath.

I'm sure there are people -- most likely white wine drinkers -- who will take issue with my characterization of GT3 as just sort of vaguely OK. But the game's pathos was all too clearly on display from start to finish. The awful, anemic, and repetitive soundtrack served as the perfect counterpoint to a racing game that was so amazingly impotent that if you came to a complete stop in the middle of the race, the cars ahead of you would slow down to 2 miles per hour. Y'know. To give you a chance to catch up. Because it wouldn't be fun if your opponents actually drove the race to the best of their abilities. (Of course, this works in reverse as well, so that if you open up a substantial lead through transcendent driving, the chase cars suddenly are able to exceed their vehicles' rated top speeds. Maybe we should put these programmers in charge of Formula 1 races this year).

The graphics, which reviewers heaped praises on, were superb in "replay" mode, and hideously ugly in driving mode: PS2 developers seem to have huge amounts of trouble providing full screen antialiasing for their games, something the Dreamcast could do in its sleep. Even when a game is so desperately in need of it as blurry, jaggy Gran Turismo 3. It's been a few years. Maybe someone has taught Polyphony about that checkbox in their development tools. We'll see.

Most of the reviews complain a little bit about the omission of online play from GT4, but that doesn't concern me at all. Online play for the Playstation 2 is utterly dead. It is a nonstarter. No one who matters plays any Playstation games online. If you want to play console games online, you own an Xbox, and that's all there is to it. Xbox Live's user experience is so superior to the Playstation's online gaming mechanisms that it's just more polite to pretend that the PS2's online capabilities don't exist at all, just like you'd politely ignore it if someone farted at a wedding. There was a gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and poor, clueless Sony showed up with a knife.

So given the somewhat lackadaisical product that was GT3, I don't really expect much from GT4. If the Nurburgring and Paris tracks are good, and I can buy a Skyline without having to play for 36 hours, I'll consider it an OK investment. And who knows, perhaps I will be surprised. If I am, I'll write about it here.

And before you ask, yes, I plan on buying Forza Motorsport, as well.

Vrooooom. Vroooooooooooooooooom!

Posted by peterb at 08:04 PM | Comments (7)

February 18, 2005

Indie Game Friday: Neverball

by peterb

Neverball is an open-source version of Super Monkey Ball, which itself owes quite a bit to the classic Atari arcade game Marble Madness. It's quite fun, and challenging. It runs on Mac OS, Windows, Linux, and FreeBSD, so you have essentially no excuse for not trying it out.



The game requires quite a bit of CPU (and graphics card - hardware OpenGL acceleration is required) oomph, but the payoff is worth it. The textures are simple by dazzlingly bright, reminding me of the earliest of the Atari 800 chromaluma extravaganzas, but with more detail. Real-time reflections and shadows are part and parcel of the package, as is an amusing version of the game called Neverputt which is, as you might guess, a version of miniature golf.

The basic idea: you have a ball. It's on a course. There are coins, obstacles, and a goal on the course. You want to pick up the coins, avoid the obstacles, and reach the goal without falling off. So what's the best way to do this?

Why, of course. The rational thing to do is tilt the entire world.

Moving the mouse causes the world to pitch "downwards" in the direction in which you moved it. This in turn causes the ball to roll. My one criticism of the game is that it's a bit too difficult; the rebound when you smack into a wall is markedly stronger than in Super Monkey Ball. Which I guess make sense, since presumably monkeys are softer than metal balls.

Neverball is available, for free, on the web. There are over a hundred different levels to occupy you. Give it a shot. Happy rolling.

Now, if only someone would make an open-source, expandable version of Katamari Damashi...

Posted by peterb at 06:26 PM | Comments (1)

February 17, 2005

Axiom of Choice

by psu

I have been fortunate enough to get my hands on an iPod Shuffle. I was mostly seduced by the look of the item, but wasn't sure how the screenless shuffle-only interface would really work out in practice. Surprisingly, the Shuffle is by far my favorite iPod device for day to day use. In particular, its shuffle play is much more enjoyable in the car than shuffling with the normal iPod. This seems odd, since on the face of it there should be no difference between playing songs at random on a Shuffle and doing the same a normal iPod. However, it turns out that they are different in subtle and important ways, and therein lies the reason I find the Shuffle to be more enjoyable.

First, let's review the major differences between the two players. My 40GB iPod basically can hold everything that I currently have ripped on my current iMac. This is around 13GB of music right now, which works out to about 2500 songs or 8 days worth of music. As I add new material into the iMac, I just transfer all of it to the iPod. So, when I want to be able to pick and choose from everything that I own, the 40GB iPod is the thing to take. I love it on planes and other long trips where I have the time to scroll around in the interface and pick what I want to play. It's less than ideal in the car however, where interacting with the iPod is annoying and dangerous.

The iPod Shuffle is exactly the opposite. It is not large enough to hold everything I own, and the player has almost no user interface at all. However, iTunes has a system called "Autofill" for randomly downloading songs from a smart playlist into its 1GB of flash memory. The fact that it does this from an iTunes smart playlist is critical because it allows for a valuable level of selective filtering. You can filter the songs by genre, ratings, length and so on, so you avoid the problem of shuffle playing a whole audio book, or movements from a symphony. The autofill mechanism will also weight its choices by your own ratings, so you can make it pick from just your favorites. Once the player is loaded, the interface is simplicity itself. Hit play, hit pause, hit next, adust the volume. That's it.

On the face of it, you'd think that the iPod would be able to do this. That is, you'd think that the iPod would have a single button that you hit to get a random selection of the good stuff in your library. But you can't. Shuffling a playlist requires that you do no less than three or four actions at different levels of the iPod user interface. The result is, you never do it. This leaves you with picking something to play, which also requires more thought than I have time for while driving.

Ultimately I think the issue comes down to choice. While the iPod provides a sophisticated interface for choosing what you want to play, that same interface essentially compels you to always choose what you want to play. Even if you have it set up just like the Shuffle, the interface sits there in front of you, beckoning you to fiddle. The Shuffle, by doing away with this interface, leaves you in the comparatively blissful state of being at the mercy of your robot overlords. Since I can't fiddle with the playlist, I happily allow the machine to do its job. This removes a small but noticeable amount of tension from my life and ultimately is why the Shuffle makes me happier in the car and for most day to day use.

Admittedly this is a subtle psychological bit of sleight of hand that I am playing with myself. But I think the general principle about interfaces that is at play here is that sometimes choice is good and sometimes choice is bad. It is better in general to hit the common case perfectly than to allow (and thus force) the user to tailor the system on her own. Choice provides flexibility, but can lead to extra complexity and confusion that the user does not want. Outside the realm of music players, this is something I learn every time some bad ass punk assasinates me in Halo 2 while I'm standing there trying to choose between the shotgun and the sword.

Oh, the Shuffle is also wicked small.

Posted by psu at 08:22 PM | Comments (7)

February 16, 2005

Eggs à la Escoffier

by peterb

I haven't had much time to read lately, but the time I have had has been spent reading Gina Mallet's superb book Last Chance to Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World. I hope to have a full review done next week, but for now I'll just tantalize you with my interpretation of a recipe that she mentions in passing, one of Escoffier's innumerable versions of scrambled eggs. I've made it several times now. I think I'm addicted.

This is funny, because I have always despised scrambled eggs. I've always considered them the worst item on the American breakfast table, barely fit for consumption. Apparently, this is because everyone makes them wrong. I might dislike steak, too, if everyone always burnt it to a crisp.

Start with 6 eggs. As with most egg dishes, you'll have better results if the eggs are near room temperature. Crack the eggs in to a bowl, and add salt and finely ground pepper. Combine gently.

Put a heavy bottomed pan (I use a square-shouldered stainless steel skillet) onto medium heat. When it's up to temperature, add the eggs (no butter or fat...yet) and begin immediately stirring gently and constantly. The goal is to have them smooth, not lumpy. Don't cook them too fast.

When they're starting to firm up (but are still nice and runny) remove them from the heat and add an ounce and a half of butter, and three tablespoons of cream. Combine until incorporated.

I eat them with a spoon. They're very rich, and are a satisfying meal any time of day or night. Invite me over if you make extra.

Posted by peterb at 08:03 PM | Comments (3)

February 15, 2005

Shadow Hearts: Covenant

by psu

Lately I have been trying to figure out why I keep playing Shadow Hearts. It is a "role playing" game in the Final Fantasy mode, which means it offers up a mostly linear series of small dungeon-like areas (even the towns are like dungeons) where you run around, pick up items you can't see (as in, they are not rendered on the screen, you only notice them because your clueless avatar gets a little "?" bubble when you pass one), meet monsters at random and generally just run from cut scene to cut scene while the various numerical attributes of your characters increase at random intervals. Overall the gameplay is repetitive and stultifying. The cut scenes are stiff and melodramatic with characters and voice acting that tends towards the humorous even if they don't mean to. You can't really say that the narrative, such as it is, is all that great.

But for some reason I keep going back to it. So I thought about it for a while. Here is what I like about the game.

Combat is Fun

The combat system is enjoyable for a number of reasons. First, it is entirely turn based, so you get plenty of time to fart around and think about how you want to kick the ass of your foe. Second, after you have decided what you want to do, the game presents you with a device that can make you feel like a bad ass: The Judgment Ring. The Judgment ring is timing gauge. You pick an action for a character and then you must time button presses as a sweeping hand goes around the judgment ring to determine how well your character does. Gladius has a similar attack gauge. In this respect, Shadow Hearts combat is basically like Gladius but without all the moving of characters around on a grid. Third, the combo system adds a certain amount of strategy and skill to the mix. Basically, you can chain actions from multiple characters into "combos" that do extra damage if you manage them successfully. Rewards for successful combos range from extra damage to bonus cash and experience at the end of the fight. The monsters are varied in design and are generally fun to look at. There are also a few that cross that line into the completely bizarre (the giant puff ball kitten comes to mind).

The main downside to the combat, aside from the repetitive animations and sounds, is the Sanity Point system. Basically, this is an artificial construct designed to make you need to stop fighting and babysit your avatars every few turns lest they go "Berserk" and lose control of their faculties and run over into a dark corner and wet themselves. I suppose this is supposed to add "depth" or something, but in practice it just makes boss fights longer and dumber. Luckily, it's only an issue in long fights.

In any case, combat is a big part of the game, and it is well done from my standpoint, which makes the game fun.

It's Not That Hard

In addition to fun combat, the game has a nice balance between the abilities of the characters and the difficulty of the foes that you face. Once you get the hang of the battle system, it's rare that you will lose fight after fight. This has the effect of allowing you to play through the game without a lot of repetition. This keeps the game moving forward at a good clip. Generally, the game is paced so that you can do one area every hour or two, which fits my game playing time slots well. This is in contrast to other games I've played recently.

Puzzles and other non combat aspects of the game are also not too hard, but interesting enough to not be completely tedious. OK. They are sort of tedious. But it goes by quickly. At least none of the puzzles are the Towers of Hanoi or depend on you being able to see the single tiny key in a large dungeon that lets you get past the door.

Fascinating Japanese Bizarre

Many aspects of the game are truly bizarre and surreal. You keep playing just to see the next thing. Along these lines the character models are generally comical. All the women, for some reason, have large chests and wear little in the way of covering. There is the huge wrestler dude who speaks like Dudley Do-Right and spends a third of his time in the form of a golden bat. There is the old guy with the magic puppet in the shape of a little girl. There is the S&M bitch boss monster. The list goes on and on.

Monster design has a similar sense of strange. For some reason, WWI Europe is populated by a bestiary from Hell itself. Exactly why this should be is never spelled out or justified. The world just exists this way. I think this is sort of cool.

There is a whole side plot involving one of the party members, which happens to be a white wolf. One mission in the game is a sneaky stealth level where you control the dog. How many games give you the chance to play a stealth mission as a dog? Metal Gear Snoopy.

Finally, of course, there is one side quest in the game that has been immortalized by Penny Arcade. It turns out that the magic dresses are useful, although the character they are attached to is somewhat weak. But, there are not that many of them and unlike the implication in the comic, collecting gay porn is not a huge part of the game.

Decent Navigation and Save Points

The savepoint system is tolerable. There are generally saves when you want them and you can always save from the world map mode. The game is good enough to give you saves before bosses and the save system doesn't randomly pick and choose information to throw on the floor without telling you. The game is pretty flexible about letting you back track to go and find things you might have missed. But this has limitations. In general, you can't go back and perform quest activities that you forgot about after passing any related milestone. It's a relief to save a game and not have to replay a whole level anyway.

Many Cool Items

Finally, the game appeals to any gamer's inherent obsessive compulsive collecting nature. The only time I have had any repetitive replays is when I either forgot to pick up a particular item or just didn't realize it was even there, and then ended up needing it later. I think you could drive yourself nuts playing every level twice to optimize the collecting side quests, but generally the game is balanced well enough that you can leave stuff behind and not cause any harm to yourself. I find myself reading the Internet guides to see what I missed, but I tend not to go back for things unless I really need to.

Happily, the game also does not require you to pick and choose what items to bring along or leave behind. The inventory system lets you carry as much as you want so there is no bin packing busywork. This makes me very happy.

Ultimately, I think Shadow Hearts succeeds by being well crafted rather than being spectacular in any particular way. You run, you fight, your numbers go up and then you watch some cut scenes. It's like a good summer movie with a lot of action and requiring not too much brain power. I think that having enjoyed this romp through Japanese RPG land, I'll have to go and pick up Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne now. I think I saw it on sale over at The Exchange.

Posted by psu at 02:30 AM | Comments (4)

February 14, 2005

Baroque Works

by peterb

In the beginning was Ti Kan, who wrote a little CD player app for X windows called xmcd. Like some other players at the time, it had support for entering disc and track names, and remembering them later. Ti went a step further, though; he provided support in the application to submit track names to a central server, the CD Database, or CDDB. Users could download and install the entire CDDB on their hard drive, which would then allow them to magically get track and disc names for discs that anyone else had entered data for. Later, Ti added support to look up track names on the internet. I was an early xmcd user (in fact, I even distributed a binary version for BSD/OS, a fact that I'd completely forgotten until I googled for it.)

Eventually, Ti looked for a way to monetize the CDDB. I don't blame him. The database eventually ended up in the hands of Gracenote, where it remains to this day. Gracenote licenses an SDK and access to their CDDB to companies that want to include it in their product.

Many computer MP3 players that have support for ripping CDs also support looking up CD track names in the CD Database.

There are two interesting things about the CDDB (and really I mean "the CDDBs", since there are databases other than Gracenote's): first, the data in them is provided by the users, rather than by the music publishers, and second, the database is full of errors.

In the early days of the CDDB, I definitely got a thrill of pleasure in buying a new disc, putting it in the drive, and discovering that I was the first CDDB user to do so. Cool! I'd get to "contribute to the community" by entering disc and track information. As time went on, this of course became a rarer and rarer experience. One aspect of the database that I don't know much about is: what happens if two people send in different track data for the same disc? Which one wins? Many clients allow you to "submit corrections to the CDDB," but it's not clear that anything actually ever happens with these. So of course, there are errors. The information is being provided by end users. We make mistakes.

Now, it's not surprising that there are some errors in the CDDB. There would be errors, albeit perhaps to a lesser degree, even if the publishers were providing the data. But if you listen to a lot of classical music, the experience becomes frustrating on a whole new level. The number of errors in disc and track data are legion compared to what you find in more popular genres, like rock. And the type of errors you see are infinitely more egregious.

There are a few reasons for this.

  • In terms of genre, the CDDB is specific to a ludicrous degree in pop music, but has no ability to classify classical music at all. If I'm categorizing dance music, I can choose between Dance, Electronica, House, Industrial, and about a hundred other categories. If I'm listening to chamber music? "Classical." Opera? "Classical." Baroque? "Classical." Medieval nose-flute? "Classical."
  • Classical music has a little more metadata than pop music. With a rock band, I'm almost always only going to care about the disc name, song titles, and the artist. In classical, it is important to know the composer, and the performer, and often the recording label.
  • God help you if the work you're ripping has more than one disc. Typically, not only will the metadata be entirely wrong, but the metadata for each disc will be entirely wrong in a completely special and unique way. Since probably a greater percentage of classical works (notably opera) are multiple discs, I see this more often.

For example, I just ripped the Chœur des Musiciens du Louvre version of Offenbach's La Belle Hélène to iTunes. The first disc, amazingly, only had one problem (listing the "year" as 1864, the year of the composition, rather than 2001, the year of recording). To only have one error is actually a rare enough occurrence that I'm considering declaring today a National Holiday and commemorating it each year. The second disc had the following problems: The title of the opera was wrong. Apart from not having the accents, the title of the opera includes "Disc 2" in it, even though there's a "disc number" field in the ID3 tags. There's no Composer tag. The "this is part of a compilation" field is checked. And finally, the piece de resistance is that every song on the disc is called simply "Act II" or "Act III" and the "artist" field is used for the actual title of the track. That's going to make "browse by artist" on my iPod super useful, since it will let me find every song by that superb band, "Ciel! Mon Mari!"

Truly, the mind reels.

Now, all of these issues are correctable in my music player, of course. I can just edit the hideously wrong CDDB data after the fact. But since the whole idea of keeping a centralized database of disk-to-metadata mappings is to free us from having to do that,I find it somewhat frustrating. ("Use a different player that uses a non-Gracenote CDDB" isn't a solution, both because I like everything else about my music player and because I haven't seen any evidence that the non-Gracenote CDDBs are free from this issue.)

I'm not sure what the right solution is, but the marginal cost for paying an intern to send the right data to one or more of the various CDDBs can't be more than a few bucks per project.

What do you think the right answer is?

Posted by peterb at 08:30 PM | Comments (5)

February 12, 2005

Call for Volunteers: Gli Amari

by peterb

I really like a class of alcohol that many people don't: Italian bitter aperitivs and digestifs, known in Italian as amari. Campari, Strega, Averna -- I find they settle my stomach and soothe my soul.

Often, I find that it's almost impossible to describe the taste of these drinks to those that haven't tried them. And, even with my travels, there are still many that I haven't tried yet.

So: I would like to call for volunteers to participate in a tasting panel whose purpose will be to taste, rate, and describe in detail a large number of these amari.

I haven't yet decided on the date, time, and place, although in the back of my mind I have a few bars and restaurants that usually have a good stock of these liqueurs. I'll probably try to get this sponsored by wherever we have the tasting, but if that fails, expect to pay a nominal fee to play (cost-based -- I'm not trying to make a profit on this, and since these are bitters, I doubt mass quantities will be required). I haven't decided yet whether it should be a blind taste-test or not.

Requirements: you must be at least 21 years old, live in the Pittsburgh area, and be willing to provide your own transporation there and back (which means a designated driver). You must not be an alcoholic or be allergic to alcohol. You should be talkative, and should be willing to be tape-recorded for later transcription. You do not have to like bitters (and in fact I think it would be kind of fun to have someone that doesn't offering their opinions), but you have to at least taste everything we're evaluating. I'll ask participants to sign a waiver and release giving me permission to republish their words in this space.

If you think you are interested in being on the panel, please send email to: bitters -at- tleaves.com. I think I only need a small number of panel members, so please don't be offended if you aren't chosen. But I promise to respond to everyone who offers to participate.

Posted by peterb at 07:10 PM | Comments (1)

February 11, 2005

Easiest Roast Pork

by peterb

This recipe is adapted from The Joy of Cooking. The main modification is that if you make it my way, it won't be dry and overcooked. The main virtue of this recipe is its simplicity. The only way it could be easier is if it just read "pick up the phone and ask someone to make roast pork loin for you."

Get a 3 pound pork loin. Don't cut the strings.

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees F.

Coarsely chop up a tablespoon or more of fresh rosemary. If you don't have fresh rosemary, dry is OK. In a small ramekin, mix the rosemary, a teaspoon of fresh ground black pepper, a couple of teaspoons of salt, and a generous tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. Rub this mixture all over the pork loin. Put it in a shallow roasting pan (on a rack is best, but it's not a big deal if you don't have one). Roast for 10 minutes. Lower the heat to 250 degrees F, and insert your digital probe thermometer into the thickest part of the loin. Set the alarm for 148 degrees F. Go play your favorite videogames for a few hours. When the alarm goes off, remove the roast, cover with tinfoil, and let it rest for 10 minutes. Cut the strings before carving. If you did it right, the center of the pork should be slightly pink, and it should be juicy throughout.

You can make an easy pan sauce from the drippings by adding some wine and perhaps a little more salt and reducing it on the stovetop.

Serve with a simple salad, the vegetable of your choice, and a glass of red wine.

Posted by peterb at 05:03 PM | Comments (2)

February 10, 2005

The Amber Spyglass

by peterb

One nice thing about not paying close attention to the bestseller lists is that when books come out in a series, I often don't even hear about them until all of them are out. That's what happened this year when I picked up The Golden Compass, the first book in Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials cycle.

I'm naturally suspicious of any books that are part of a series, and this suspicion grows when that series is part of a marketing genre (such as sci-fi mystery, romance, and so on). Genre, by this definition, is more about satisfying the psychosexual disabilities of the reader, and therefore guaranteeing authors and publishers a target market, than it is about good writing. A series of books, furthermore, suggests a sort of literary disorder that could be cured by a brutal editor. "Are you such a poor writer," part of me wonders, "that you couldn't say what you needed to in a more elegant and concise fashion? If Gabriel Garcia-Marquez could tell the entire history of the Buendía clan in Cien Años de Solidad why do you need an extra fifteen hundred pages to tell a story that is less interesting and less emotionally moving?"

This is of course unfair. One might as well complain that a play doesn't have music, or a ballet doesn't have breakdancing. The novel and the serial are essentially different media, and what is a transgression in one may be desirable in the other. I mention my distrust of the serial form only to give color and form to this discussion. In particular: when I mentioned that I was reading the series, the attitude I heard from more than one person was "Oh, yes, the first two books were great. A shame about the third one, though."

This didn't fill me with hope. I pressed on, though, and finished all three books. Despite (or because of?) the warning, I liked The Amber Spyglass more than the first two books in the series. I thought it was the strongest of the three. This seems to be the minority position. The reason why is a topic worthy of discussion. Please note I will be discussing details from all the books, so if you want to avoid spoilers, read no further.

What Pullman claims he was trying to achieve in His Dark Materials was to write a secular humanist fable. This has been done before, to varying degrees of success. All of Ayn Rand's works, notably Anthem, would qualify, as would Rushdie's Midnight's Children, or Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Pullman specifically invokes the not-so-crypto-Christianity of C.S. Lewis' Narnia books as his bête-noir: "it's propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology."

The first book in the series, The Golden Compass, opens in an alternate-universe Oxford with a pre-Enlightenment feel. Dons in black robes patrol sconce-lit corridors, preparing decanters of Tokay and discussing "experimental theology." Lyra, the girl-child protagonist of the story, begins the trilogy living deep in the (not very warm) bosom of theological academia, with her dæmon. A dæmon is a kind of familiar that manifests part of a human's soul. Every human in Lyra's world has one. The story follows Lyra's awakening and escape from this environment. It is no coincidence that each step Lyra takes towards adulthood takes her further afield from where she began.

Pullman's description of Oxford is rich and multi-layered. It was his depiction of this world that drew me into the first book. I suspect, in fact, that this is why so many people don't like the third book in the trilogy. They feel betrayed: they wanted to read more about Church machinations and stern-faced Dons who quote Milton and talk about minor heresies with an aura of gravity. But this isn't the story Pullman wanted to tell, and it is apparent from the beginning. To dwell on the pornographic flagellations of Christianity is to let the enemy choose the rules of engagement.

Lyra and Will (who is introduced in the second book, The Subtle Knife) are both transgressors. Lyra transgresses by her urgent yet unfocused desire to rebel against any authority, and Will transgresses by repeatedly killing in self-defense. They are both on the cusp of adolescence. To be of this age is to have the constant feeling that, merely by existing, you are violating the rules. Pullman's portrayal of Lyra and Will rings true to me in this way. His Dark Materials is at its heart about Lyra and Will outgrowing the need for religion. For the third book to focus on the religious cloisters of Oxford would be a real betrayal. Pullman ignores Oxford because it is not relevant to the world the heroes need to create. Indeed, it is fitting that Lyra's parents, nearly too late, realize that they are morally obligated to deliver their daughter from the Church, rather than to it.

There are things to dislike about The Amber Spyglass. The plot is cluttered, which means that some of the characters are flatter than they should be. He resorts to a deus ex machina worthy of serious eye-rolling to defeat the Right Hand of God by making him really, really horny. And we never find out the science behind "Dust," or discover much about the biology (or psychology) of the dæmons. This is another thing I suspect many sci-fi fans don't like about the story; they want everything explained in excruciating detail until any mystery is dead. One complaint I've heard is "he left too many loose ends." I disagree. I think he did leave plenty of loose ends. The story is better for his having left them.

There may be some problems, but there is much to love about the book. The characters that Pullman does take the time to flesh out are wonderfully human and compassionate. His depictions of the carefree cruelty of childhood are crisp. He demonstrates the capacity of people to grow and to change in fundamental ways. And perhaps most impressive is his recognition that love and loss (and their children, longing and regret) are painfully and beautifully intertwined. That the trilogy so unabashedly leaves questions unanswered and abandons the faithful to the emptiness of their lives is not a problem with the book: it is a virtue. To wonder about how one resolves the sickness of religion is to miss the point. The book is Lyra and Will's search for humanity and meaning without God. It is a beacon showing that a meaningful life without God is possible.

The Amber Spyglass accomplishes its task well. Those looking for a different story will simply need to find a different fable.

I like this one.

Posted by peterb at 07:23 PM | Comments (2)

February 09, 2005

Xs and Os

by peterb

Every year, like clockwork, the big gaming megacorps turn out this year's model of their (American) football games. A little more glitz, a little more glamour, some new player statistics. Every year, like clockwork, the gaming press issues their boring roundups of the subtle differences between the nearly identical games. This one has better graphics, that one has a better running game. The commentary on this one sounds more realistic, that one has better stadiums.

I'm not going to do that. I'm going to do something a little different.

I'm going to compare the latest megacorp NFL Football game, EA Sports' Madden 2005 to an older game: XOR's NFL Challenge, a mixed text-and-graphics DOS-based game first published in 1985.

The thing about sports videogames that both attracts and repels me is that I'm not good at any sport that doesn't involve a firearm. On the upside, sports games provide an outlet for me to fantasize about a world where I possess some degree of athletic prowess. And sport by its nature contains many dramatic moments that lend themselves well to videogames. On the downside, I feel the residual guilt of willingly playing a game where I am in some respects pretending to be one of the people I loathed in high school.

You'd think that football, with its macho tradition and homoerotic undertones, would be my least favorite videogame. In truth, it's one of my favorites. This is because football, more than other sports, is a tactical game. The tactical aspect of football shines through in the videogame versions. All football videogames, deep inside, are just immensely complex versions of rock-scissors-paper. This isn't as evident in other sports videogames. I "know" that on some level there are formations in soccer, and plays. I "know" that I can tell my basketball team to go full court press, or take a zone defense. But the constant action in those games means that I, as a player, end up focusing more on making whoever has the ball engage in some outrageous piece of on-field bravado in order to score. In football often a play's success depends more on trying to trick the opponent's defense into anticipating a run when I am really going to pass than on raw playing talent.

In most videogame versions of football, it is considered legitimate to pick a play, hike the ball, and then not touch the controller, but to just let the players run the play as best they can. So most football games already allow you to treat them as nearly pure coaching games.

NFL Challenge is a pure coaching game. The game has a statistical mode where it simulates an entire season, but for this review I'm going to focus on the "play one game" mode. If you like football as an abstract battle, NFL Challenge might be the most fun you can have with your pants on.

You can have two human players, or one player can challenge the computer, or you can let two computer players fight it out and you just watch. Assuming you choose to control a team, the mechanisms are simple: choose a formation and a play. Then, watch the play happen. There are more options than that, of course -- you can call time outs, substitute players, go to a "hurry up" offense -- but the core of the game is choose a play, watch the play.

XOR NFL Challenge

XOR NFL Challenge

The play calling interface is sparse but effective. You see an overhead view of the field drawn in colored ASCII graphics. A red triangle indicates the position of the ball on the field. Pop-up text menus let you choose a formation by number. Once you choose a formation, you choose a play. The perspective then transfers to the "run the play" view.

This is where the simplicitly of the game shines through. What you see is nothing less than a colour version of the old Atari arcade football game: 11 Xs represent the defense, 11 Os represent the offense. The play commences, and the Xs and Os begin their dance. There's no control on this screen at all. You've chosen your team, they have their preset skills, and they run the play to the best of their ability. The game is simple. The game is elegant. The game is addictive.

Madden 2005 stands up surprisingly well to NFL Challenge as a strategic game. In addition to allowing you to play "hands off," it has some features that are of use to the football novice. The best of these is "Football 101", which allows you to explore different offensive formations and plays, with a voiceover explaining the purpose of the formation and how the play is supposed to work. Regrettably, I haven't found a way to get Football 101 to explain defensive formations and plays to me yet, but half a loaf is better than none.

As you'd expect, it is in the overall presentation of football as a beauty pageant where Madden 2005 outshines its predecessor. The actual player animations are underwhelming. If you've played any of the 2000-era games on the Sega Dreamcast, then this is basically more of the same. Ball collision detection is still loosey-goosey and feels unnatural and otherworldly. You have complete control of your players, if you want it. If you'd rather not play as a coach, you can control one player at a time with great precision, making him juke, stiff-arm, dive, and run. Also, the spit and polish on the other aspects of the presentation are notable.

For example, the first time you start the game, it asks you what your favorite team is. From that point forward, all of the animations and background movies in the menus are of your "favorite" team in action, and the color scheme is coordinated to your team's colours as well. When you start playing with the "play now" option, you're given an setup menu which by default has your favorite team as the home team, with you controlling it. This is one of those optimizations that seems so obvious after you actually see it in action that you marvel that everyone hasn't already done it.

The color commentary from John Madden and the other crew "in the booth" is generally on-target and feels very natural. There are none of the discontinuities and aberrations that plagued earlier games. Stadiums and teams are all correctly depicted, and Electronic Arts gets a nice big plusplus for remembering that the Pittsburgh Steelers don't have cheerleaders. You can create customized players, and even customized fans who show up in some cutscenes. It's cute.

Madden also provides a large number of play modes, including online support (via Xbox Live on the Xbox version -- welcome to the 21st Century, EA). There's also a sort of strange "collectible card" thing going on. As you play the game, complete training challenges, and meet certain goals (for example, "make 5 tackles with the same player") you earn "tokens" which can then be used to buy "packs" of Madden cards. The cards have various powers that can then be deployed during the game, up to and even including cheatsing. I'm the sort of obsessive-compulsive collector who should like this, but it doesn't really work. It muddies the focus of the game.

One specific area where Madden isn't quite as enjoyable as NFL Challenge is in substitutions, penalties, and injuries. In several weeks of Madden games, I haven't seen a single penalty. I haven't seen a single injury. And for the life of me, I can't figure out how to get the game to stop undoing my roster changes. I send Bettis out on the field, and three plays later Staley is subbed in for him without the game even telling me. This drives me nuts. The frequency of penalties and injuries in NFL Challenge feels about right to me, and you have complete control over your roster.

Both of these games will be a pleasure for the "coach style" football addict. If you've never played NFL Challenge I suggest you try it. I give it the edge because it feels more like "actual football" than Madden. If you are seduced by the glitz and presentation of Madden, well, you won't be alone. It's a pretty game. But I think NFL Challenge is the deeper one.

Additional Resources

  • You can find NFL Challenge online. It plays well in DOSBox on the Windows and Mac platforms, and presumably anywhere else DOSBox runs.
  • Madden 2005 is available at your nearest megacorp game store, or from Amazon.com, for the PS2, Xbox, Gamecube and other platforms.

Posted by peterb at 12:28 AM | Comments (2)

February 08, 2005

Paris Things

by psu

My friend Eric asked me what to do in Paris. Since I live to serve here is a list of my favorite activities. In general, I am not much of a tourist. My idea of a good time on a trip is to eat a lot, walk around and stare at the natives, and take pictures of buildings when the light gets good. This list reflects this bias. No bus tours of the major monuments for me.


This is an English bookstore on Avenue de L'Opera. You must go here first not because it is some huge significant land mark. You must come here first to pick up one item which is essential if you are to survive your trip and get decent food. The book to get is the The A-Z of French Food, which is a French to English food dictionary which will explain to you what all the flowery language on the French menus means. This will allow you to go to the good places (no English menus) and not have to guess what they are serving you.

Buy it in France. It's cheaper there.

While you are there, you can pick up the definitive Paris map book. Look for a little blue book with the title Paris Practique. The book has one or two maps per arrondissement (or neighborhood) all on individual pages. This is handy because everything in Paris is labeled with the number of the arrondissement in which it resides. There are 15-20 arrondissements in all organized in a spiral out from the center of the city. If you hear people saying things like "Oh that's in the 8th", this is what they mean.

Jardin du Luxembourg (6th)

This is my single favorite place to go in the entire city. A trip spent sitting in this garden every day for an entire week would not be a waste of your time. The people watching is on an awesome scale. The tourist density is a bit lower than at other gardens for some reason. There are many different areas on the grounds with different looks. There are the fountains, kids playing in the fountains with the little boats, a great building to stare at, and the ubiquitous young people in amorous poses. If you go only one place while in Paris, go here.


One of the joys of Paris as a city is the dozens of open air markets that move around the city at regular intervals. Find the location and schedule of a market close to where you are staying in town. Then get up in the morning and go. Here you will find access to some of the best food you will eat in the city without the overhead of dealing with the long, snooty and expensive service of your typical high end Parisian restaurant. Head over with your empty bag and pick up fruit, vegetables, bread, cheese that is illegal in the U.S., fresh fish, raw oysters, live langoustines, and loads of hot dishes ranging from quiche to kabobs to whole roast chicken. It's a feast in a tent. Another bonus is that while tourist traffic exists in the markets, it's fairly light compared to other attractions in the city.

Café de Flore (6th)

This is a tourist trap, but it's the coolest tourist trap that I know of. The place has excellent coffee by any standard, even if it does cost $6. Go in the morning, sit on the terrace, stare at the people going by. Do this every day at the same time for a week or two. Pretty soon, they'll stop treating you like a tourist dog.

The area around the café is also fantastic for window and other sorts of shopping. Walk up and down Blvd. St. Germain and Blvd. St. Michel, or really in any other direction from the café to find dozens and dozens of places to spend your weak dollars.

The Marie-Anne Cantin Cheese Shop (7th)

Go here to buy cheese to smuggle back to the U.S. Get two wheels of raw milk Camembert (this is similar to Brie, but the wheels are a smaller size). This cheese is like nothing you have had in the states. It has a strong flavor, but not astringent. It has layers and layers of aftertaste that range from salty and cheesy to mellow and sweet. It is simply amazing.

Get two rounds of the St. Marcellin to eat on the way back to your hotel with some insanely fresh baguette from the bakery around the corner. This is like the soft goat cheeses you can get in the States, except that it actually has character and flavor instead of tasting like the white paste that is every single pasteurized piece of crap that is legally available in the U.S. (and mostly in Canada too).

Get some Epoisse, just because. You can't buy real Epoisse here, so you have to get some. The Camembert is better, but you still have to get some anyway.

Finally, grab some of the nice aged goat or sheep milk cheese that they have. Whatever they recommend.

Wrap it all up in a vacuum sealed bag (they do this for you) and stuff it in your checked luggage.

Les Fontaines (5th)

Great steak and meats in a great area to walk around in. Close to the Jardin du Luxemborg and the Pantheon. There are many funky stores and stuff around this area. It's fun to hang around. I've seen some trash talk about this place going down hill after a change in ownership a few years ago. All I can say is, it must have been at some other transcendent level before if what we had was "down hill". Get the Filet de Boeuf en Croute. This is a filet steak wrapped in puff pastry with a deep brown sauce and a little piece of foie gras on top. Oh, and it comes with a big enamel dish filled with fries. It's a great way to die.

Alain Ducasse (8th)

When you want to blow the price of an iPod on lunch, this is the place to go to be sure you get your money's worth. It's probably the best restaurant experience that I've ever had. I had asparagus here that had five separate tastes all going on at once. The rest of the meal until the little chocolates is just a blur. They also hand you a loaf of bread on your way out of the place. Also, four years after my wife and I went, we still get a card from this place every Christmas.

Maison Européenne de la Photographie (4th)

This gallery is in the Marais just a few blocks off the Seine. On my first trip to Paris we wandered in here and they were having a massive retrospective on Ralph Gibson. I found out later that Ralph Gibson is one of the most famous living photographers ever. It was a really good show. I go back every time now. It's always good.

Musée Rodin (7th)

A bit out of the way in the 7th a couple of miles from the Eiffel Tower and a few blocks away from Invalides is this gorgeous historical mansion filled with exquisite light shining on exquisite sculpture of all kinds. The grounds of the museum also hold a fantastic sculpture garden. The museum is admittedly narrow in scope compared to the Louvre or the Orsay, but I don't think there is a prettier space in which to examine and contemplate works of art than the Rodin.

Ile St. Louis (4th)

This is the small island just off of Notre Dame. While the big church is cool, the Ile is cooler. During the day, there are great cafes, Bertillon ice cream, the Au Gourmet de l'Isle restaurant for lunch, a nice toy store, and other things to gawk at. It's also very pretty at night.

St. Chapelle (1st)

An astoundingly beautiful chapel near Notre Dame. Much smaller scale and more intimate. I like it better here than dealing with the throng at the big place.

Around Le Louvre

I don't recomment spending a lot of time in the Louvre. I think it's more fun to walk around the places surrounding the museum. The Palais Royal is great. There is the Jardin des Tuileries. And then if you walk back towards the river there are various bridges you must stand on. Really. Just stand there and look up and down the river. Bring a picnic to the Ponts Des Art. Eat your food, look at the river, stare at the amorous young people. This is good for about a whole day.

If you must go to the Louvre, dash quickly to the Venus de Milo, and then leave immediately and go back to the gardens or the bridges. That's my opinion.

Things to Avoid

For god's sake do not under any circumstances buy a hot dog from a street vendor.

Avoid the huge mall that is Les Halles.

Summer is not a great time to be in the city. It's hot and ultra-crowded. Better to go in the early spring or in the fall.

Can't really think of anything else.

Other Things I Missed

You have to just walk around and stare stupidly at everything. I like just looking at the old doors on buildings. They are astounding. Bring nice clothes. Leave the tennis shoes and baggy shorts at home. Even if you dress really really well by casual American standards you'll stand out like a sore thumb. Meal service in France is at a much more relaxed pace than you are used to. Expect to spend a couple of hours eating the average meal in a good restaurant. Go to the Cafe Marly and get a really expensive burger. If you want to go to one of the really famous museums, go to the Orsay, or the Picasso. Everyone should also see Montmarte and Sacre Coeur at some point.

The list goes on and on. I could keep writing for months.

Posted by psu at 04:05 PM | Comments (2)

February 07, 2005

Patriots Dynasty

by psu

Three championships in four years. Two championships in Boston in the same year. It's a good time to be a fan there right now. Too bad about the Celtics though. I guess I can finally forgive the Pats for that game against the Bears back in 1986.

Posted by psu at 01:00 AM | Comments (0)

February 04, 2005

Roasting Almonds

by peterb

It's a simple problem, with a simple solution.

The problem is that raw almonds are too sweet and unfocused to enjoy on their own, while most roasted almonds you can get at the store are dry and unenjoyable. Do not speak to me of the overpriced "Marcona" almonds sold to suckers at places like Whole Foods. They're greasy and have all the character of frozen okra.

What you want to do is roast your own. Here's how to do it.


  • 1 oven.

  • 1 flat pan, such as a cookie sheet.

  • 1 pound whole raw almonds.

  • a tablespoon or less of almond oil. Note: there's a concoction called "almond oil" that really refers to an extract of bitter almonds. A small amount is enough to ruin any dish, and a spoonful on its own will cause intense pain and burning, and for all I know will kill you. Don't use this stuff. I'm referring here to the true oil of sweet almonds, suitable for use in frying.

  • Lots of table salt. Don't use kosher salt.

Preheat your oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Take your raw almonds and spread them out on the cookie sheet. Pour some oil on the pan, and swish the almonds around the pan with a spatula until they're all coated with a little oil. You can always add more oil if you didn't use enough, so start sparingly -- a teaspoon or so might be enough, if the almonds are small. Once they're coated, grab a generous handful of salt and toss it over the almonds. No need to agitate them any further. Put the pan in the oven and go play Halo 2 for about a half an hour. When the kitchen starts smelling good, they're nearly done.

Figuring out when they're actually done is somewhat problematic. Roasting nuts is a tricky business. If you under-roast them, then they will taste raw, and you will have spent time and energy for no particular reason. As they approach "perfectly roasted," they will taste better and better. Then, there is a magical, awful line across which the nuts move from "perfectly roasted" to "burnt and inedible" in a matter of seconds. Finding and avoiding that line is a matter of experience. The almonds will continue to roast for a bit after you remove them from the oven, so for your first attempts it's probably better to take them out too soon rather than too late.

Once they're out, take another big handful of salt and throw it over the almonds. The double-salting is one of my secrets to great almonds (the other is simply using almond oil, rather than the peanut or sunflower oils used to roast most commercially processed almonds). You can taste them at this point, but right out of the oven they will be soft and mealy, and not worth eating. Let them sit, and cool, and harden. When they are completely cool, transfer them to a jar, and enjoy.

Eat them however you want to. I like them with slices of apple, and oil-cured olives, and cheese.

Posted by peterb at 05:34 PM | Comments (14)

February 03, 2005

Dear NPR Ethicist

by psu

I have a tricky question that has been bothering me for a while. Maybe I should ask NPR about it.

In the video game "Halo", the player is often accompanied by a squad of Marines that are driven by the computer and help the player out in combat situations.

These marines are actually fairly intelligent. They will provide cover fire, take cover to keep from getting killed, and also provide a wide variety of commentary on what is going on in the game.

At one particular stage in the game, you land on an enemy star ship and there is a huge fire fight in a hanger. If you lose your squad of marines, the game automatically calls in more help, and another squad arrives.

But, it can happen that a lone super-marine will survive the initial fire fight, putting you in a bad position... you need more help than one marine to get past the next wave of killer aliens, but help will not arrive as long as this super-marine manages to keep himself alive.

So, my ethical question is: should I shoot the last guy in the head so I get a new squad?


Posted by psu at 03:21 PM | Comments (2)

February 02, 2005

DV Dilettante Buyer's Guide

by peterb

Jonathan writes:

My brother has uttered his semi-annual wish that someone would just tell him what DV camera to buy.
My reply is: I live to serve

People use their DV cameras for producing different types of work. Since I don't know what, exactly, your brother is interested in doing, I'm going to construct an ideal consumer and write my advice to him. My ideal consumer wants a DV camera because he wants to produce some body of work. He wants to produce finished product (by which I mean, not just take a bunch of raw footage of his cats and then occasionally watch an hour of it, unedited). He wants that product to have some level of professionalism, although he is not a professional. In other words, he'd like to produce something that a complete stranger might look at and say "hey, this was pretty nicely done," although not necessarily at the level of something one might make part of a portfolio for getting a job (hopefully, a person who is aiming to make their living as a videographer doesn't need my advice on equipment).

(1) First, come up with a budget. For the sake of this example, let's say your initial budget is $1000. Whether one is talking about cameras or computers, you'll always be able to find something to spend "just $200 more" on. So it's important to know what we're working with before we begin.

(2) Go ahead and look at the cameras that cost $1000.

(3) Cut your camera budget in half -- in this case $500 -- and pick up pretty much any camera in that price range. Don't spend more than half a day thinking about it. Consumer-level cameras are mostly interchangeable. This is more or less true of "prosumer" (a Japanese word that means "has too much money") cameras as well.

(4) Now take the money you have left over from your initial budget ($500), and spend it on lighting, a good tripod, and balanced microphones/audio equipment.

If you follow my recipe, you have a chance at making far superior films (footnote 1) than you would if you blow your entire budget (or more) solely on the videocamera. The videocamera is just one tool in the filmmaking process. It's certainly the most obvious tool, but it is arguably not the most important one. The cheapest balanced lavalier mic will get you better sound quality than the most expensive camera's on-camera mic. Furthermore, your audience will notice that difference more than they will notice the difference in video quality between the most expensive prosumer 3-ccd camera and the cheapest miniDV device you can find. As a culture we are very finely attuned to subtle differences in audio. Poor video quality can be dismissed as a stylistic issue, and we are accustomed to accepting a variety of different video qualities in our day to day viewing activities. Poor audio is intrusive and jarring, because nearly all of the things we listen to, apart from AM radio, are of a standard professional quality. A poor audio track can make an otherwise fine video unwatchable. Therefore, I say: get a real balanced mic. (I actually wrote an article last year about what to do when your soundtrack sucks, but you're much better off avoiding having that happen in the first place.)

There is one situation in which you can skimp on the mic, and that's if you know in advance that you won't be using the audio track from whatever videos you shoot (for example, if you will be overdubbing later, or setting your work to music). But if you intend for your movies to have sound recorded at shoot time, get a mic. Below, I'll provide a link to Jay Rose's book on producing audio for digital video, which is a worthwhile investment if you want your sound to be good. And you should.

Most consumer (and prosumer) cameras compete not on basic quality-of-video issues, but on "features." Most of these features are completely superfluous to making good videos. Also, if this is your first camera, you probably don't yet know what features you actually need. For example, 90% of the camcorder reviews talk about "low light performance." But we've already established that my hypothetical consumer wants to make something watchable. Watchable films have lighting design. Ergo, you could care less about low light performance, because you're going to use the money you saved on the camera to buy some real lighting. Obviously, I'm giving this as an example. If you're determined to charge in to a darkened gothic cathedral and use your Panacanony's super infrared feature, well, I can't stop you. But if the Paris Hilton video isn't enough to convince you that "low light" cameras are a bad idea out of the starting gate, you need to watch it again. Er, solely in the interests of Art.

So in my mind, the feature list is more or less a distraction that you want to ignore when evaluating cameras. The only things you should care about are: does it shoot video? Does it feel comfortable in your hand? Does it have the inputs and outputs I need? That's about it.

Things you should specifically not care about: whether it takes still photos, and at what resolution. Whether it does dubbing. The "in-camera" editing features, which no one, in the entire history of video since the beginning of time has ever, ever used. Digital zoom. Digital image stabilization. Low/no light mode. Camera motor noise (you are using an external mic, right?).

HAD CCD verticle smear

Photo credit: David Reuther

The one thing to concern yourself with at the low end is "Sony vs. Everyone Else". That's what the decision comes down to. Many of the Sony DV cameras use a CCD that causes vertical "striping" on bright light sources that I find very distracting, whereas the Canons, for example, don't. The photo to the right is an example of vertical smear. It looks like lens flare, but isn't -- it's entirely due to the characteristics of the HAD CCD that some camcorders use. That was one main reason I avoided the Sonys. My personal pick when I had to make this decision was to find a used Canon Optura Pi. But that being said, the guidelines are simple: figure out what you want to spend, don't spend more than that, spend as little as possible, and worry more about the process of shooting and editing than about the equipment.

I'm not being flip. My honest recommendation is that you figure out what you think you want to spend on a camera, and cut it in half. Get a camera half as expensive as you think you need, and spend the remainder on sound and lighting (and, start saving up for a moderately inexpensive or a really expensive non-linear editor software package). All of those things will be more important to the quality of your finished work than the camera you buy.

But, if you're going to wrest a recommendation out of me, I would say, assuming your budget isn't unreasonably large, get a Canon Elura 65. It is lightweight, inexpensive, and isn't loaded with 800 stupid features that you'll never use. I recommend this model instead any of the various Sony ones because I really dislike the "vertical lens-flare" effect from Sony's CCD's. Also, the Canon has a top-loading tape, so when your tape runs out in the middle of a shoot, you don't have to remove it from the tripod to change it, as you do on some of the Sony models. I would have recommended the even cheaper Canon ZR models, but the most recent revisions of that line lack a mic input, making them little more than toys. An older used ZR with a mic input would be a good choice for a bargain hunter. If you're absolutely, 100%, positively sure that you will never need to do in-camera recording, then the Canon ZR-80 becomes a reasonable choice, saving you over a hundred bucks and a few ounces in weight over the Elura.

Additional Resources

Footnote 1: Yes, I am well aware that works that are on video are not, in fact, "films." In the name of international peace and goodwill I can only say: bite me.

Posted by peterb at 03:29 PM | Comments (4)

February 01, 2005

The Legend of Zelda: Groundhog Day

by psu

I have been playing Zelda: Wind Waker on my new Gamecube lately. Aside from some control issues, the game is a wonder of interesting and unique mechanics, enjoyable narrative, excellent game design, good music and great graphics. However, my experience the past few nights might make me give up on the game altogether, and this is sad. Here is my story.

I have often referred to Pete's savepoint rant in my own rantings about games. Savepoints are truly one of the curses of console gaming. When he had originally written that piece, I mapped the term to what Halo or Splinter Cell do, where the user is only allowed to save her state upon reaching certain fixed points in the game narrative. While this system is pretty annoying, I had no idea that an entire universe of pain existed just outside the edge of my vision.

So I was playing Zelda, and having finally acclimated to the mechanics, I was really enjoying myself. It's not often you come across a game that uses more than two or three mechanics well. Zelda gives you a new toy to play with in every level. This, along with the fantastic presentation and graphics had me really grooving. Then, just as I was really having fun with the jumpy plants, it was bed time. See, I'm old and feeble and need to go to bed at night rather than playing my favorite game until I actually reach the next savepoint. In a fit of optimism, I saved my game, so I could pick it up again the next day. But as I learned, you can never underestimate the psychotic cruelty of the console game designer.

One would think that a correctly functioning save system would save two basic sets of data:

1. The state of the game world.

2. The state of the player.

Apparently, in the world of console game design, one is free to pick and choose which, if any, of these data you actually save. The great thing is that you have to experiment to find out exactly what is saved when you hit that save button. As we have seen before, Splinter Cell and Halo save everything.

In Metal Gear Solid you have the "Oh sure, save anywhere. HAHAHAHA just kidding! We only kept the last savepoint" scheme. Here, the Save menu item is always available, but is silently ignored unless you happen to have recently passed a savepoint. So, you load your game and rather than being back where you saved, you are back at the most recent savepoint before the point at which you saved. This is because it would be thousands of man hours of work to change the game's user interface to disable the Save menu unless it would actually do something.

Ratchet and Clank has a slightly different twist on this theme. Like Metal Gear, the game lets you pick the Save menu item any time you like, but the game picks a different subset of state of save. In general, if you save and then quit and restart, you come back at the start of whatever mission you were playing. You have to run through the level and do all the jumps and puzzles over again. But, the game does remember which enemies you killed between the start of the level and the checkpoint you reached. So you find yourself running through a long empty area. Also, the game very carefully remembers what items you have, how much health you have, and so on. Thus, the savepoint saves everything that is interesting about the your state and the game state, except your location in the level. This is because storing one extra 64 bit piece of data would have been too resource intensive.

Zelda follows the lead of other platformers, which seem to define an unpredictable continuum that saves some parts of the game world and some parts of the player's state, but not all of both.

So, the next night, I come back to the game, and I notice that even though I saved my game in the middle of a long dungeon, I appear to have come back at the beginning of the dungeon. Not only that, but all the creatures that were in my way, which I dispatched with my sword, are back again. I conclude that saving the game in the middle of a dungeon does nothing, even though the save game button is always there. This is not quite true. The game does keep track of the puzzles I've already solved and the items I already have. I guess it would have been just too hard to also keep track of where I am in the dungeon and what I have killed. Orders of magnitude more data and expense.

It gets worse though. Occassionally in the game, you will come across a Boss, or a Mini-Boss. If you suck, like me, it can take a few tries before figuring out how to kill them (e.g. try a few times, read the walkthrough). Of course, every time you fail you get sent back to the start of the dungeon. This is sadism of the highest order. The end result of all this is that I'll be playing the same dungeon all over again tonight, and I was already tired of the jumping puzzles last night. If I don't make it through this time, I will put the game down and never pick it up again.

This is sort of sad, since there is so much in this game that is awesome. But, I don't have time to deal with the game designer's brain dead ideas of when I can and cannot save my state.

Of course, adding one simple hardware mechanism to every console would save the day and allow me to finish this game. This mechanism has been widely implemented in mass market computing hardware. I refer, of course, to instant sleep. To wit: when I feel like quitting for the night, and I want to save my place, I hit a magic button and the console goes into a sleep mode where it is inactive, but the complete state of the machine is kept intact by a trickle of power to the memory system. When I want to pick up the game again, I hit another button and the machine wakes up exactly where I left it. The only constraint is that I can't open the console and switch games.

Now I am free of whatever stupid save system the game designer has decided to implement. I can stop playing when I am stumped by a puzzle, knowing that I won't have to navigate the whole dungeon again. I can quit just as I meet the new Boss and read the walkthrough before dying the first time. And, most importantly, when I sleep/save/quit, I know for a fact that the system is saving everything, not some random subset of the state that is important to me.

Note that this is not the same as "save anywhere". This mechanism does not allow for creep saving or saving an infinite tree of different game timelines. It does not require huge save files (since we are keeping the state in the console itself) and both the save and load are instantaneous. All it does it let me save and quit when I want and come back exactly where I left off. This, it seems to me, is what saving my game is supposed to be about. In addition, many modern games on the GBA SP (including all of the GBA ports of Zelda) implement this mechanism, and it is good enough that it allows me to forgive almost all the savepoint sins that might be in the actual game.

So how about it Nintendo, put this into the next GameCube. Then maybe I can see what all the fuss is about Zelda.

Zelda Status Update: I managed to get to the end of the dungeon in one more try. So I might keep going.

Posted by psu at 11:34 AM | Comments (4)

November October September August July June May April March February January

December November October September August July June May April March February January

December November October September August July June May April March February January

Powered by
Movable Type 2.661