March 31, 2005
This is the first part of an article on the Tea Leaves amari tasting panel. Today we will talk about the arrangements and participants, and tomorrow we will discuss the panel's reactions to the liqueurs.
Their names roll off the tongue: Fernet. Nonino. Averna. Their tastes — unusual, herbal, and exotic — can seem almost indescribable. They are the amari, powerful Italian digestifs.
My first exposure to amari came in Italy. Standing in a bar sipping a macchiato, a somewhat grizzled gentleman walked in and said, in a gravelly voice, "Averna". The barkeep poured a thick, dangerous looking liquid into a shotglass, the gentleman finished in a gulp, put the glass on the bar, and walked out. I asked the barista what it was, and he explained that it was a digestivo. "It's something you might drink if your stomach was a little unsettled."
Later in the same trip, after a long day of walking in the sun, I felt a bit queasy. "Obviously, alcohol is the solution to this problem," I said to myself. In the next bar I came to, I said "Averna," trying as best I could to sound like I knew what I was getting myself into.
It was not like other drinks. It was strong-tasting, but also subtle. It was sweet. And it was bitter. And it did settle my stomach.
Standing next to me at the bar was an older Italian man, staring at me. I nodded a greeting. "How can you drink that stuff?" he said, in English. I asked him what he meant. He shook his head sadly. "You people, you British, you Americans, you come over here and you drink all these awful things. I don't understand. We don't drink that stuff. We drink whisky." He gestured with his glass for emphasis. I shrugged, and he wandered away, tumbler of scotch in hand.
Something about the strangeness of that encounter left a mark on me. I was curious about these unfamiliar drinks. In Italy they are valued for their medicinal and digestive properties. In America, the only liqueur of this style that could be called popular is the German Jägermeister, a concoction favored by college students because of the apocryphal belief that the various herbs in it will have a cough-syrup like effect on the imbiber. Why are the amari so ignored here?
The theory I've come up with is: fear. Trillin's syndrome, the fear that someone else ordered a better meal than you did, applies to beer, wine, and liquor as well. In America, alcohol is very much a social lubricant, a prop, a badge of identity, and a point of discussion. Ordering a drink you don't like is more than just a let-down, it's actually a social faux-pas. "Are you so naive that you don't even know what you like to drink?" But of course, the only way to learn what to order, if you're not willing to experiment, is to mimic others. Which brings us to our present situation, where there are only five drinks (not counting beer, wine, and slurpees with booze in them) that most people ever order: gin and tonic, rum and coke, vodka and anything, whiskey, and the martini. And the martini has been so emasculated that most people who drink them still don't know what vermouth tastes like.
Fear can be overcome by knowledge. That, more than anything, was what motivated me to create a tasting panel for amari. The panel's goal was to taste some of the best Italian amari and describe them in enough detail that people could order them (or buy them at a liquor store) and have some idea of what they were about to try. With that in mind, I contacted Lidia's of Pittsburgh restaurant in the Strip District — they have the best amari selection in the region — and asked them if they were interested in sponsoring the tasting.
What consistently impresses me about Lidia's is that their ambition precisely matches their abilities, and they know it. From the decor straight down to the details of the menu, Lidia's manages to be both elegant and modestly understated at the same time. Every time I walk into the place I am confused by how they manage this. I imagine the restaurant itself speaking to me: "Oh, that chandelier that you can't take your eyes off of? That's just made from some blown glass. We apologize that it's not nicer." "These perfectly-executed ravioli? Why, the mixture inside is very simple, just spinach and cheese. We hope you like it." "Ah, yes, we have this wine list with some very unassuming wines. We figured we'd just charge $20 for each of them. Is that OK?"
You can walk in dressed to the nines and feel perfectly at home, but if you show up in jeans and a t-shirt they don't give you even the slightest whiff of attitude (I know: I've done it). I think the secret to the place is that the atmosphere is firmly focused on being a complement to the food, rather than the other way around. It's part of their presentation, it enhances the experience, but fundamentally what they are selling is well-executed, straightforward Italian cuisine. The dishes are not presented as more than they are, but neither are they dumbed down. And they love their own food.
It is this that came through when talking to Dave Wagner about amari. Lidia's estimates that they probably sell, overall, maybe a bottle or two of amari over the course of a year. That's how few people drink these liqueurs. And while I've no doubt that some people are going to try amari as a result of reading these articles, I'm sure Mr. Wagner doesn't expect the Amari Division of Lidia's to suddenly become a huge profit center overnight. They sponsored our panel tasting because they love amari, and think it would be wonderful if more people learned about them. They did it because they care about eating and drinking. The next time you have a lousy meal at a pretentious restaurant, ask yourself if you think they actually care about their food. And if you answer "no," then do yourself a favor and make a reservation at Lidia's, instead.
Based on his enthusiasm, his experience, and his interest, then, Dave Wagner was the first member of our panel. Allow me to introduce the others.
Instead, she sat down, ate with us, and spent two hours talking with us about food, amari, and culture. She was gracious and witty. It only takes about five minutes with her to understand the restaurant's attitude towards food. She speaks of food as something that isn't only sustaining and pleasing, but spiritually fulfilling as well. She doesn't just love food, she respects it.
But more than that, she listened. It would have been easy for her to simply assume the role of teacher and tell us which drinks we should like, and why. Instead, she was interested in seeing how our various palates reacted to the different amari, and how we felt about them. It was an honor to have dined with her.
I suspect that there must be some sort of fashion class in the last year of architecture programs where they teach you how to wear the cool glasses and still look good.
I need to take this class.
for The Creativity Project.
Kilolo, in other words, is awesome. Any uncertainty about how the event would go evaporated once Kilolo agreed to be involved. It is a metaphysical impossibility for any event with which she is involved to go wrong.
Steve was, in fact, the very first person to volunteer for the tasting panel. I was a bit nervous inviting someone that I hadn't met to be on the panel, but Steve is a librarian. I like librarians. So for the record let me say: if you're going to go out and drink, you definitely want a librarian with you. Steve asked interesting questions, kept the conversation moving, and was a great contributor. I'm glad he was there.
Steve and his family live in Mt. Lebanon, where his wife Jo is running for a seat on the
My biggest fear in inviting Ann to participate was that she wouldn't be able to find time in her schedule to make it. Fortunately, I was able to entice her by exploiting her fascination with my motives. "Wait, so you for write this weblog thing. And...how do you make money on it? You mean you just called up Lidia's and asked them to sponsor this? Why are you doing this, really?" I'm pretty sure that she still thinks I have some master plan to option the movie rights to "The Amari Tasting Story" and retire to Tahiti, but of course, nothing could be further from the truth. (Note to Hollywood: Have your people call my people. Let's do lunch.)
Laura is also the author of one of my favorite food weblogs, Upside-Down Pear. She doesn't flood you with useless articles on everything she thinks of, but instead picks her battles, and is always right about everything.
I was sure Laura was a good choice because she's well-spoken, and while culinarily adventurous, she would not see the adventure as an end in and of itself. In other words, I knew that Laura would be willing to stand up and announce, in the face of peer pressure to be noncomittally nice, "This is terrible."
Laura also cares about words, an attribute that I think is generally admirable.
The guidelines for the panel were straightforward. Be bold in your opinions. Express preferences. Try to describe what you're drinking, not show how sophisticated you are. I wanted to take these vague adjectives people use about amari — "bitter," "assertive" and the like — and turn them in to specific descriptions, so that someone who hasn't tried them might have some idea of what they'll find if they try one.
The stage was set. The panel had arrived. Six bottles and forty-eight glasses waited on a nearby table.
But first we had to eat.
Amari are digestivi. They lie on that odd fault line between the sensual and the medicinal. At one point, I had suggested that we could dispense with a full meal, because I was eager to get to the drinks. Lidia's lips pursed ever so slightly. "They're meant to be enjoyed at the end of a meal," she said. There was the merest suggestion of a sigh. "But, if that's how you want to do it...." Immediately aware that I had just suggested something equivalent to ordering tiramisu as an appetizer, I quickly backed off and tried to recover. "No, no. We should do it, uh, exactly the way you just suggested. In every way. Uh, ma'am."
We spoke of the history of amari throughout the meal. People have been infusing alcoholic drinks with herbs since antiquity for reasons of both preservation and taste. Lidia traces the Italian amaro tradition back to the Romans, although our modern vermouth is probably closer to their drink than are today's distilled amari. One can try to guess at the ingredients, but they are typically many, varied, and kept absolutely secret. Dave Wagner told the story of the time he was visiting makers of Amaro Nonino, in Friuli, and asked them to give him at least a hint of what went in to their infusion. "Of course," his host smiled, "just as soon as you tell me the formula for Coca-Cola."
While you may never know the full list of ingredients for any one amaro, there are certain ingredients that appear again and again. Anise regularly appears, as do juniper berries. The flavor of wormwood can often be detected. In the fruitier amari, the most common starring role is given to the bitter orange (Citrus Auranium var. Myrtifolia, which the Italians call chinotto.) No two amari taste exactly the same.
As dinner came to a close, the plates were cleared away, leaving us with an array of empty glasses. The bottles were passed around, and we began to pour. The waiting was over. Now, after all the talk and anticipation, we would put our palates to the test.
In the next installment: the Tea Leaves panel tries to describe the indescribable. Please check back soon to read the rest.
March 30, 2005
I picked up the new Splinter Cell game tonight at the Target. I've only played through the level that was recently on the Xbox demo disk, but I feel that I have to give Ubisoft a big wet sloppy kiss for listening to the forces of light and goodness and implementing quick saves, save anywhere and faster load times all in one fell swoop. This one act of kindness removes the only tedious and annoying aspect of the previous Splinter Cell games.
The quick saves are so good that I can even face replaying a level just to see if I can finish it with a higher "rating" (more sneaking, less killing). I can do this because there is no hateful savepoint system making me replay the level five times just to get to the end. Basically, there is no downside, and anyone who says there is cannot be trusted as anything more than a raving lunatic moron.
Bravo Ubisoft. Let's hope other developers follow their lead.
March 29, 2005
Driving home from work on Friday night, we noticed a strange sight for Pittsburgh. A couple of dozen young people decked out in the Pierced Goth look that is prevelant among today's "non-conformist" youth were riding down Fifth Avenue connected to bicycles via fancy clipless pedals and shoes which looked a bit out of place under their black jackets and rainbow colored leg warmers.
When they all ran the red light at Fifth and Bellefield, I realized what was going on. This was Critical Mass.
The Critical Mass propaganda is that they organize "events" to "raise awareness" about the relationship, or lack thereof, between cars and bicycles on the road. Mixed into this agenda is some mumbo jumbo about alternative transportation and a lot of self-important twaddle about how bike commuting will save the world. What they do to further their cause is ride in large clumps down the road, ignoring all the prevailing traffic laws and generally crippling whatever traffic corridor they happen to be occupying. Actually, the Pittsburgh crowd was too small to cripple anything, but I've seen larger groups in other cities pretty much bring rush hour to a dead stop. In Pittsburgh, they made do with running lights and doing donuts across Fifth Avenue. In other words, Critical Mass is a bunch of cyclists riding like complete morons in order to improve the relationship between bikes and cars on the road. Good luck with that.
Now, don't get me wrong, I love bikes. Over the last thirteen years in Pittsburgh, I have ridden my bicycles several thousand miles including a few century rides and light commuting. In my time I've had dozens of dogs yap at me through car windows and chase me down roads. I've been buzzed by teenagers on Meth. I've had fruit thrown at me from the pickup truck of some red-neck moron. I've drafted busses and choked on the fumes. In other words, if you are on a bike somewhere in the city, I know what your existence is like.
But, whenever I am in the presence of a Critical Mass event, the only thing that keeps me from rolling the windows down and screaming obscene epithets is young children in the area and my wife hitting me upside the head. I believe that I am as sympathetic a mainstream audience as Critical Mass could possibly hope for, and all I want to do is hurt them. Let me explain.
For decades, John Forester has been preaching the right way to mix cars and bikes in his excellent book, Effective Cycling. Anyone who has more than a passing interest in serious cycling should stop reading this page and go buy this book right now. It should be required reading for cyclists in the same way that the New Testament is required for Christians. Among other things, the book makes the strongest case that I have ever read that the right thing to do is to
1. Treat bicycles as first class vehicular traffic (like motorcycles, say).
2. Have cyclists obey the prevailing local traffic laws.
In the U.S., we seem to be constitutionally incapable of applying these simple principles. On the one hand we have drivers who are convinced that bikes belong only on soul-sucking recreational trails where we would be doomed to ride an endless expanse of crushed limestone at slow speeds, lest we run over the hordes of bladers, joggers and baby strollers who are sharing the space. On the other hand, we have cyclists who are completely ignorant about how to ride in traffic. What they should be doing is riding on the road, in the same direction as the traffic, as far to the right as practical, and following all relevant signs and lights. In other words, no weaving around on the road, no riding between the car lanes, no double pacelines, no jumping lights, no riding on the sidewalk. This doesn't seem like a lot to ask, but the majority of cyclists that I observe don't seem to be able to follow these simple rules. Even the cops on mountain bikes ride on the sidewalk.
You would think that members of a cycling advocacy group would try and do better in the hopes of showing the car driving world that they are mature adults that deserve equal standing on the road. Instead, they act just like the infantile assholes on Friday night, blowing through a red light at a busy intersection and then doing donuts across three lanes of traffic. My conclusion is that any hatred that drivers have for bikes is completely justified because the cycling community in general, and Critical Mass in particular, has done nothing to make drivers think that cyclists are anything more than a bunch of juvenile self-centered cry-babies. As long as this image persists, the sick moron who chucked fruit at me in Mars, PA will feel justified in his actions. Therefore, rather than helping me in any way, Critical Mass just makes my life, and the lives of decent cyclists everywhere, harder, and they must be stopped.
In his book, Forester suggests that the reason we discriminate against bicycles in our traffic laws is that we believe bicycles to be toys for children, and thus we don't expect any more than child-like behavior from the people riding them. Critical Mass certainly lives up to these expectations.
Using Google, I found this guy who agrees with me. So I must be right.
March 28, 2005
Everyone loves to hate Starbucks.
You can understand why: they're everywhere, they're successful, and the experience from store to store is so consistent that they destroy even the pretense of local flavor.
There's an upside to Starbucks, though: they're everywhere, they're succesful, and the experience from store to store is so consistent that I can get a drinkable coffee in the middle of nowhere.
To those of us who live in cities, the idea that one would have to go to a Starbucks to get acceptable coffee is ridiculous. Can't you just go to a local coffeeshop? How about a diner? Can't you get good coffee anywhere?
The answer, of course, is: hell no.
I can already see people dashing down to the comments section, prepared to lecture me on how Starbucks coffee is overroasted and burnt and doesn't provide true satisfaction and yadda yadda yadda, to which all I can say is: sit down, Simone, I'm not finished with my rant yet. You don't know from bad coffee. You don't know anything about bad coffee. When I was a kid, I had to walk to school in the snow, barefoot, uphill both ways, and when I got there they served me sewer water with Folger's Crystals waved over it, so I know a thing or two about bad coffee.
The biggest criticism I have of Starbucks on the coffee front is that they are promoting the moronic, disgusting, Seattle-style cappucino. Cappucino is supposed to have a hood that is made from steamed milk mixed with the crema on the coffee. Instead, thanks to Seattle, we get two inches of air-filled foamed milk ladeled on top of our coffee. But it's every coffee-drinking cretin in Seattle, not just Starbucks, that is responsible for that moral tragedy. And Starbucks has, on the whole, done more good than harm. What sort of good, you ask?
I used to drive the length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike about six times a year, going back to about 1986. In 1986, there was no Starbucks. If you wanted coffee, you stopped at a rest stop, where there would be a McDonald's or some other fast food joint that had a five gallon jug of "Maxwell House" coffee that tasted — and I am simply being as descriptive as possible here, this is not hyperbole — like brewed cardboard. It didn't taste like coffee, just tannin. If you were lucky, it was only 6 hours old. That was the standard experience. That was as good as you could get when you were in, say, Carlisle, PA and didn't know anything about the area.
Now, more or less every rest stop along the way has a Starbucks. I can get coffee that, even if it's not exactly to my taste, tastes like something. So while I understand the various critiques one can make of this huge and growing megacorp, I think it's important to remember just how goddamn bleak things were in the hinterlands before they arrived.
None of this means that you should go to a Starbucks instead of that cool local coffee shop. If your town has a place as good as La Prima Espresso, and it's within easy reach, and you go to Starbucks instead, then you're a fool. But have you noticed how many fools there are out there?
There's a Starbucks not too far from my office (yes, I realize that in any major American city that's kind of like saying "today I was breathing air.") In addition, there are also at least 3 coffee shops within easy walking distance that have nice atmospheres, and coffee that tastes better and is cheaper than Starbucks'. The Starbucks is packed, all the time. Every hour they are open, people are fighting over parking spots, or walking past the other coffee shops on the way so they can get their fix at the Starbucks. Why is that?
It's tempting to just shrug it off and say "well, they're all stupid," but I think it's a bit more complex than that. I think part of the secret is to realize that Starbucks markets itself (and does it very well) to at least 3 completely different market segments at once.
Start by going in to a Starbucks and looking at the menu on the wall. In every one that I've been in recently, you'll see that it consists of three separate panels, each focusing on a different style of coffee. I call these panels "Giuseppi," "Joe," and "Josephine". The leftmost panel is Giuseppi -- it's all espressos, cappucinos, and other drinks. Students trying to look sophisticated, the artistic type with the Powerbook, they're all ordering from Giuseppi. Joe, the middle panel, is all variants of plain coffee — "house" coffee, decaf, tea, etc. Commuters on their way to work are all ordering off of Joe. On the rightmost panel, you've got Josephine, which I'll broadly describe as consisting of stupid girly drinks -- frappucinos and flavored coffees. Basically, the third panel is for people who don't really like coffee except in the form of a milkshake. (For some reason, the dreaded "caramel macchiato" – if I ever meet the Yuppie loser who misappropriated the name of my beloved tiny spotted coffee and slapped it onto that super-sized monstrosity, I'm going to spit on him – is on Giuseppi, presumably because what you call a thing is more important than what a thing actually is.)
Now, your local coffee shop surely has espresso drinks and regular American coffee also, and maybe even a girly drink or two. But what they don't do is market them towards the different types of customers with the same singleminded intensity as Starbucks. Watch people order from a Starbucks menu. Their eyes aren't wandering over all their choices. They go straight to the specific menu segment they're interested in, and then choose from that.
And Starbucks does the little things right, too. Their workflow is smooth and well-architected to deal with high volume. The clerks (I'm trying to avoid calling them "baristas") smile and aren't judgmental, even when you order something stupid like a caramel macchiato. There's overpriced and overportioned pastries of the type that are popular nowadays. If you want to sit there in their comfortable chairs for three hours with your laptop not buying anything, they let you. The lighting is subdued and not harsh. Their bathrooms are clean.
Maybe that's stuff that you don't care about. I don't really care about most of that, either. But apparently, lots of people do. What I think a lot of bitter coffee fanatics don't understand is that the success of Starbucks isn't about the coffee. The success of Starbucks is about the company convincing people who weren't spending $3.50 a day on coffee to make it a part of their daily lives. In the early 1990s, when Starbucks was opening on every corner and driving the weaker local coffee shops out of business, I remember thinking "They can't keep this up. There just aren't that many people who go out and buy their coffee at coffee shops." Starbucks secret is that they weren't just out to steal consumers from the failing coffee shops, but were working on creating new consumers. In retrospect, they didn't just steal existing customers. They expanded the market.
In the end, I think that's why Starbucks is a net benefit to coffee drinkers everywhere. The cost has been that a few local coffee shops that probably weren't that good anyway were driven out of business (the really good ones have adapted to the competition and have dedicated customers). In return, you can now get a decent cup of joe in the middle of Nowheresville, Kentucky, and the overall level of the United States' appreciation of coffee as a drink to be enjoyed, rather than simply endured for its medicinal properties, has risen. If you never leave the city, maybe that doesn't seem like a good trade to you.
But for as long as I still have to drive the length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike on occasion, I'll say it's worth it.
- If Starbucks ever drives La Prima out of business, I'll edit this article and replace it with a rant saying that I always knew they were bastards who are intent on destroying our precious culture.
- The I Hate Starbucks web site, interestingly, seems to largely consist of bitter rants from Starbucks employees.
- Dear fellow travellers at Coffeegeek.com: From this point forward, referring to your Rancilio Silvia as "she" is strictly forbidden, and violators will be punished. No, seriously. You're really creeping me out. Stop it.
March 27, 2005
I am pleased to announce that Lidia's restaurant in the Strip has graciously offered to sponsor the amari tasting. The members of the panel have been chosen, the time and place are set, and all that's left is to sit down and actually taste the liqueurs, and write up our impressions. Expect pictures and commentary from the event soon.
March 25, 2005
Thanks to the alert readers who pointed out that the Captcha/security code text box was misnumbered, which made tabbing between the comment fields painful. It's fixed now.
March 24, 2005
For the record, here's my list applying the criteria that psu sets out.
|Food Not Great||Food Good or Great|
|Not Pretentious||Chiodos, Dee's Hot Dog Shop, The O||Il Piccolo Forno, Rose Tea, Tram's Kitchen|
|Pretentious||Le Pommier, Mallorca, Cafe Sam, Church Brew Works.||Baum Vivant, Chez Gerard|
As a special case, as far as I'm concerned, if your menu says "hominy polenta" instead of "grits," you are automatically placed in the "pretentious / food not great" category.
There are a lot of ways to rate restaurants. The assumption is that most reviewers are there to rate the food, but really they are looking at many other aspects of the place. Therefore, in rating surveys like the Zagat's, you see multiple numbers written down and averaged and weighted: food, decor, "value" and so on. I was reading a ranty blog entry about a few local places and the thought occured to me to try and define a simple measure to summarize my feelings about a restaurant. Thus, I present to you: the pretention quotient.
Simply put, this quotient is derived by comparing how good the food in a particular place is with how pretentious you perceive a place to be. If you take the ratio of these values, restaurants then naturally fall into four general classes:
Low Pretention, Great Food
Here we have the best ratio of food quality to pretentiousness. These tend to be small places that serve simple regional food that is just too good to pass up. I would eat real barbeque off a picnic table before I'd sit down at most of the fancier tables in Pittsburgh and get served a "flame roasted pork loin with quinoa, baby spinach salad and a cranberry apple demi-glace relish" which ends up being a tasteless piece of white rubber with a red sauce, stale raw spinach with some fake cheese on it and that execrable fad grain that tastes like grass.
Locally, my favorite places hit this sweet spot. La Cucina Flegrea has some of the best Italian food in the city coming out of a place with barely two rooms and a dozen tables, and they let my kid run around near the kitchen while I eat. Similarly, Rose Tea Cafe has simply the best Chinese food in town but is utterly straightforward and lacking in pretense.
High Pretention, Good to Great Food
Of course, we go to fancy places too. The good ones have a quality level is at least as good as their pretentiousness. Locally, Dish and Vivo both aim high and generally hit their targets. Bona Terra is also a nice local place that easily justifies the amount of text they use to describe their food. Casbah is a place whose food exactly matches its pretention level.
Low Pretention, Mediocre Food
Here we have the places that equalize their quality to pretention ratio from the other direction. So they are not great, but they do not try to convince you that they are shooting terribly high. I find these to be tolerable because they basically serve you exactly what they advertise. Locally, a place like Atria and the chain places fall into this part of the matrix. Of course, one prefers to avoid chains if one can help it.
High Pretention, Mediocre to Bad Food
Finally, we get to the places that dominate my bad experiences in restaurants. These are the more up scale stores with big rooms, fancy menus, medium to high prices and completely generic, tasteless, unoriginal food. Here are some things you can do to gain yourself pretention points while not improving your food at all:
Food as Sculpture. Very few people do this well. In general, stacked food is not interesting to look at and is just harder to eat. It's hard to cut that rubbery pork chop when it's sitting on top of the cold mashed potatoes.
Weird Tableware. I don't need forks and knives that weigh eight pounds, or huge plates for small food items, or bowls that are crooked on top. This generally serves no purpose but to distract you from how utterly boring the actual presentation of the food is.
Novel Length Menus. Spare me the biography of every lamb leg you serve, or the trading routes used to obtain the rare olives in your salad. Too often the breathless descriptions of hand picked herbs and organic micro-greens are just an elaborate ruse to make you think the place is not just serving you a plain piece of frozen fish with a white sauce.
Fruity Sauces. You better know what you are doing if you are going to have me put fruit on my meat. Also, you don't gain my confidence by calling that reduced sauce "saffron jus".
Snarky Waitrons Dressed in Black. The customer experience is not improved when the pouty waitstaff dressed all in gothic black sneers at me through hip thick rimmed glasses. Also, make sure they can at least pronounce the food.
And, in case you were wondering, local places that I think fall into this class include Davio, where you can spend your whole college fund on pasta in red sauce, and The Church Brew Works which is great when it sticks to beer and pizza, but for some reason needs to convince me that a Grilled Strip Steak served over a roasted garlic orzo cake and topped with a wild mushroom Dunkel sauce is a good idea, when I know it's just going to be a grilled steak with some stale starch and cold vegetables. I'm sure I could think of a few others, but we've avoided them for so long that they escape me.
Here is a handy table to keep with you to figure out how to classify your own favorite (or not so favorite) places based on how I have classified the places described above (and a few others). Send in your suggestions!
|Food Not Great||Food Good or Great|
|Not Pretentious||Atria, Chiodos||Rose Tea, Cucina Flegrea, Chaya, Udipi|
|Pretentious||Davio, Church Brew Works, Cafe Zinho, P.F. Chang's||Vivo, Dish, Casbah|
March 23, 2005
Recently, Thurston Searfoss, author of the superb strategy game The Lost Admiral Returns, dropped me a line. He's considering adding some features to the game -- online play, a scenario editor, more special missions -- and wanted my opinion as to which of those features I personally thought, as a gamer, would help with sales. I like Thurston, and I love his game, and so I wrote a detailed response to his questions. After sending it, I decided it made interesting reading on it's own, and Thurston graciously said he wouldn't mind if I posted it here.
Thanks for your mail. Let me make sure I understand your question. You began by asking me "which of these three features (more bonus/different types of missions, a scenario editor, or online (hot seat) play) will draw people deeper into the game" but you ended up asking "which of these additional features will help improve sales of my game?" I think the latter question is actually a better one. So that's the one I'm going to focus on.
One of the web sites I read regularly is Ron Gilbert's grumpygamer.com. Ron was the creator of the Monkey Island games. What Ron said, recently, was that distribution really isn't the stumbling block in selling games. Marketing is. Marketing is what turns "this game is downloadable on the internet" into "this game is being bought by lots of people on the internet." (or "this game is on store shelves" into "this game is flying off store shelves.") I don't know a lot about marketing, but I know a little. My understanding of the discipline is that the rough flow is: (1) identify a target market, (2) craft a message that reaches that market that (3) convinces them that they need your product. To some extent, I see you taking what I think of a hacker's perspective towards the sales of your game. It's very analytical. "I'd like to sell more units. What technical features can I add to the game that will make it even more irresistable to my potential market?"
The problem I see is that in order for those features to make a difference, the people who care about those features need to hear about your game. Right now, I'm not convinced they are. So, without being flip at all, my gut instinct is that the best thing you could do to increase sales would not be to do more product development, but figure out how to better market the product you have.
But let's assume that you've already got someone thinking about those issues, and you want to do as much as you can on the product side to expand the target market. So let's talk about that.
I think we can eliminate "additional missions and content" from consideration. It really isn't a draw. Lost Admiral Returns already has a ton of different types of missions, and I can't see anyone saying "Whoah, there are 14 special missions, not 9 — I'm in!" As someone who favors single-player play over online, mostly what you want to know is that there is some degree of complexity. Above a certain point, more than "enough" is just gravy. So in terms of attracting more people to buy, I think this would probably not be time well spent. This is probably also the easiest to implement, so I realize it's a shame to say that it won't expand the pool of potential buyers. But I think that's the truth.
That leaves us with online play and a scenario editor. These have similarities in their effect on the customer base, but also some differences in terms of ongoing support.
I'm going to eliminate discussion of the technical aspect of these. Obviously there are technical challenges to making online play work well, and you are going to have to tackle them if you do it. Instead, I'm just focusing on "will it help make people buy your game?"
One thing that these features have in common is they have the potential to create evangelists for the game, although for different reasons. Online players are evangelists because they need to make sure there are other people to play against. Scenario builders are evangelists because they want to garner accolades and appreciation for their design talent. It's clear that both of these features can help create evangelists. You can look at Neverwinter Nights, which is really just a decent 3d engine wrapped around a vaguely OK set of D&D rules for an example of this. It ships with both online play and a scenario builder, and a quick look at user-created scenario archives like the Neverwinter Vault shows that people really have swarmed all over both aspects (although to be fair, I'll point out that the marketing behind the game was brilliant, aggressive, and ubiquitous — you couldn't open a web browser in 2002 without reading about NWN.)
My instinct about the tradeoffs between the two (assuming they are both implemented perfectly, etc) are as follows: a scenario editor creates more aggressive evangelists (because they want to "publicize" their work), but far fewer of them, because the cost of entry ("sit down, learn to use the scenario editor, and design a scenario") is fairly high. Online play will create less aggressive evangelists, because lots of games support online play, but more of them. Hell, I got Madden '05 just because psu wanted to play me online.
There are also compatibility and upgrade issues. No one really expects to be able to play LAR 2 online without buying it, but everyone who develops scenarios for LAR will be bitter if they don't import perfectly into LAR2 (maybe it's too early to be talking about a sequel, but it's worth thinking about). I also think that online play will give you more insight into the needs of your players. Eventually, you'll have to start thinking about the next product, and the online users are going to give you more feedback than the single-player users, by their very nature.
So between the two features — online play and a scenario editor — "all things being equal" I'd say go for online play. And if you want the get the scenario editor for free, tell people that you won't be mad at them if they reverse-engineer your file format.
The one thing about online play that concerns me is whether people would find "hot seat" play intolerable. What does a player do when it's not their turn? I worry that the hotseat experience won't be a compelling experience unless you come up with a good answer to this question. No one wants to stare at a "the other player is making his moves" status screen for 10 minutes. One suggestion a friend of mine made was "online co-op play". Two (or more?) allied players enter moves to a disjoint set of ships at the same time, all playing against a computer opponent (presumably being hosted by one player's machine). when they're all done, combat resolves and displays for all of them. Combine this with a decent chat interface and you'd have something compelling and, I think, unique.
But: right now, based on what I see on the Internet, I'd bet that the universe of people playing your game — including people who are just evaluating, not buying — is way too small. You know better than I do what your numbers are. Let's say you've only got a 1% conversion rate on "people who download the demo" into "people who pay for the full game." Adding a whole new feature to the game to try to bump up that number is indeed a viable strategy, but I think you should ask yourself whether there are viable (or cheaper) paths to simply get the demo into the hands of more people instead, and increase sales that way.
Anyway, those are my thoughts on the issue. I hope you find them helpful.
March 22, 2005
This month the Official Xbox Magazine included a demo of Jade Empire, the upcoming RPG that Bioware has been developing since they passed the KOTOR franchise to others. I mention this because for the last year or so I've had the following conversation with Pete a few times:
Me: This Jade Empire looks cool, but I don't know about this "real time" fighting system.
Pete: Don't worry, this is Bioware. Every game they ever made has a battle system that is turn based underneath but animated in real time. I will bet a case of beer that exactly the same dice rolling is going on behind all those kung fu animations.
Me: Well, I guess you know more about this than me, but those gameplay movies really look like a fighting game to me.
Pete: Nah, it'll never happen.
After playing the demo, Pete came to me this morning and said "I might have been wrong. It really is real time, and it's like a fighting game, only no fun." I could only reply, "Yeah, but at least they tried something different."
These days, trying something different is as thankless a risk as one can take. Whether you develop consumer software, games, or just the interfaces to every day devices, you stand to alienate everyone who currently loves you by making even small changes to how the user operates your product. The world is full of users disgruntled by arbitrary and gratuitous changes to tools that already met all their expectations. Consider:
1. In the 1990s, modern electronic cameras evolved interfaces that were very fast to use, still provided total control over focus and exposure and only used three easy to reach dials. Of course, disgruntled old timers never figured out how these interfaces were better and continued to pine for cameras with tiny hard to reach dials on the top of the camera. A lot of people still think that the Leica film loading system is a great idea.
2. Every major update to the Mac user interface brings howls of outrage from the hard core contingent. Dozens of times now, the Mac faithful have declared that Apple has lost its way, and that they should just bring back the Classic interface from System 7 or whatever, which represented the Platonic ideal for graphical desktop user interfaces. Google for "the spatial finder" to see what I mean.
3. Getting back to the gaming context, one recent game which was excellent on many levels but derided by the hard core fans was The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Why did people make fun of this game? Was the design flawed? The story too short? The gameplay awkward? No. This game was hated because it was cell shaded, and to use the modern vernacular, a lot of people thought this was gay. Why did they think this? Because they wanted it to look like the old game, only with higher resolution textures.
What all this points to is the fact that the opinions of the installed base of users is a major factor behind the relative lack of innovation in user interfaces. Innovation is rare because users do not want it. No matter what users say, what they want is interfaces that work in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Which brings me back to my original story.
Pete and I both found the Jade Empire demo disappointing, because what we were hoping for was KOTOR but with Kung Fu. That is, we didn't really want Bioware to innovate in any way. We would have been most happy if they had just done the same game they have been doing for a decade, and pasted a new Kung Fu skin on it. We might bitch and moan about how no one makes innovative games anymore, and how everything is just a recycled franchise, but the truth is that this is what we want. We don't want exciting new gameplay. We want the gameplay that we know and love so that we can have another 40 or 60 hours of bliss on the console beating stuff up and increasing R. We want this in the same way that grizzled old Unix hackers still cling to Emacs key bindings, focus follows mouse and X11 style middle button paste, while most of the rest of the world has moved on.
This is why truly new interface mechanics rarely gain a wide following, while interfaces from existing and widely used applications live on forever. Users in general will inherently prefer awkward interfaces that they are familiar with to new interfaces that are unknown, unless the new way is incontrovertibly superior, which it usually is not. This is true for games as well, and as a result, most long running game franchises clutch on to their archaic conventions and gameplay like zombies to live brains. Whenever you are playing the license tests in GT4, or backtracking through an entire level to pick up a critical item that you missed, or find money in a plant in Zelda, or fight the ludicrous top down camera angles in Metal Gear Solid then just remember that it's like that because someone wants it that way. The next time you are watching the 30 second animated unskippable game-over scene for the fifteenth time because the current boss is too hard, you can thank the existing user base for your misery, because those are the people that would be complaining if the scene and/or the boss were taken out of the game.
The good news is that even though things change slowly, they do change. Every year more gamers enter the pool and force us to reconsider whether or not our beloved conventions make sense. Over time, this has the effect of improving things for everyone even if the hard core fanboys sometimes deride it as "selling out" or "dumbing down" the games. I haven't seen too many unskippable cut scenes, or annoying, drawn out game-over screens lately. Even the cameras in third person games are improving. This makes me uncharacteristically optimistic about the future. I'm even hopeful that Bioware figured out a way to make a real time combat system fun, rather than just button mashing.
Until then, I've got some Team Slayer to play after I kill some more Sith.
March 21, 2005
I've talked before about my distrust of nostalgia. But, I like playing, reading about, and writing about old videogames. This presents something of a conundrum.
Many discussions of old videogames are colored by nostalgia. Gamers of a certain age have strong opinion on whether the Atari 800 or Commodore 64 version of a given game was better, and have been known to come to blows over the issue. Worse, though, is the tendency to only remember the good things about games we played when we were younger. So you'll hear people talking about how the games today aren't as good as something from 30 years ago, conveniently forgetting about how terrible the UI was on that older game, and how the older game didn't actually let you save your game, so if you wanted to finish it you needed to sit in front of your computer for 36 hours straight.
To try to prevent this from happening here, I'm introducing a concept I call "Playable Classics." A playable classic is a game that you could pick up today and play on your Windows or Mac box and enjoy just as much as if you picked up a new game off the shelf. I'll still talk about old games that aren't Playable Classics, but only the ones that meet certain criteria will get the label. If I say something is a Playable Classic, I give you my word that it's not just a memory-laden reverie, but a game you should go download and install right now.
The rules are very simple.
First, the game mechanics have to have stood the test of time and still be fun. This is a somewhat subjective judgment on my part. If the game's UI requires a printed reference card so that you can figure out that "move your man 3 steps up and to the right" requires you to type "s6m45,3" because there's no in-game help and if you type it wrong the game just beeps and prints a question mark, it ain't a playable classic. This eliminates a lot of games that were good at the time, but wouldn't be tolerated today. Fortunately, it also leaves a lot of games in contention.
Second, you have to be able to start the game on a Windows or Mac computer by just double-clicking on an application icon. In other words, it has to be a simple installable app. No emulators, no Apple ][ disk images, and so on (to be clear: it's fine if the app is "really" an emulator dedicated to running that one game, but the user must not need to know that or install third-party software to get the game to work). I expect some people might disagree with this criteria, but really: if you're the type of person who is dedicated enough to install an emulator and start fetching disk images or ROMs, you probably already know what you like and don't need my recommendations. This rule is designed to restrict the field to the true classics, games that were so great that someone looked at them and said "I can't possibly let this game die. I'm going to keep it alive no matter what."
So that's the plan. I'll be reviewing the first Playable Classic later this week. If you've got suggestions for games you think merit the title, feel free to send them my way.
March 18, 2005
Here's a simple recipe for turkey. I think it's good because I made it once for a friend who doesn't like turkey, and he ate a pound of it. To this day his wife makes the recipe with chicken and calls it "Pete Su" chicken. I think I got the original version out of one of the Frugal Gourmet cookbooks. These days, thinking myself more sophisticated, I tend to look down on those books a bit, but that's just my own elitist arrogance. This recipe was surely one of the high points of the series.
Collect the following:
1. Turkey breast cutlets, sliced thin. You can have the store do this for you, since it's hard to carve raw turkey breast unless you are a real man, as opposed to me.
2. 2 eggs, beaten and mixed with tepid water.
4. Bread-crumbs mixed with salt and pepper (and cayenne if you want).
5. Olive oil.
6. 1/2 lemon.
7. White wine, capers, butter, garlic if you want.
Put the flour on one plate and the bread-crumbs on another plate with the egg mixture in the middle. Take each piece of turkey and go flour, egg, bread-crumbs to bread it. Put them on a third plate.
Heat the oil in a pan and fry the breaded turkey pieces for 3 or 4 minutes per side or until they are done. They should get nice and brown on each side. Put the cooked turkey in a warm oven.
Deglaze the pan with some white wine. Then squeeze the juice from 1/2 of the lemon into the pan. Throw in 2 spoonfuls of capers, salt, pepper and garlic if you have it. Mix it around. Reduce a bit. Then add a cold piece of butter and melt it in.
Serve the turkey with the sauce on top. Goes well with sautéed spinach or other greens and the bread, rice or pasta of your choice.
Sorry, no Halo 2 in this recipe.
March 16, 2005
You might think I don't proofread my articles carefully before I post them. Every time I post an article -- every single time -- about 5 minutes after it goes up, one of my friends will point out a spelling mistake, or a typo, or some sentence where I left out a verb. But I do proofread. And I always miss some of the errors. I think the problem, in large part, is that I've written and read the article so many times in my mind that it's difficult to read the article on the screen before me. I'll read the sentence with the missing verb, and my brain will helpfully supply it. "No problem!" my brain says. "That looks great!"
This is why I like having all the code I write go through code review.
Code review means many things to many people. Every software development house has its own process. Some of them review every change. Others only review during crunch time. Some have "group" reviews where a bunch of developers read code together. Others just ship context diffs around between developers. When I say "I like having all the code I write go through code review" what I really mean is "I like having another intelligent programmer look at the code with an eye towards finding the places where I screwed up." I've certainly sat through code reviews that were useless. But they don't have to be.
And make no mistake — there will be screwups. Different research presents different numbers. I've seen claims as high as an average of 1 bug for every 20 lines of (unreviewed) code. Carnegie Mellon claims the average commercial product (many of which presumably underwent some form of code review) has between 20 and 30 bugs per thousand lines of code, which sounds like a low estimate to me. Basically, if you think that your code doesn't have at least this many bugs, it's a surefire indication that you're either not writing enough code, or not adequately testing your code.
With this in mind, there is more than one good reason to do code reviews. First I want to talk about those reasons (some are obvious, some aren't), and then I want to talk about the mechanics of what I think makes a code review effective or useless.
Reasons To Do Code Reviews
Catching the stupid mistakes. I discussed this above. Every programmer has blind spots, or is fatigued from staring at the same file for hours at a time. Problems that sneak past the tired developer often jump out in sharp relief to someone with a fresh pair of eyes.
Converging on Consistent Style. I think this is a huge reason to do code reviews. Typically, what happens in a development group of any size is this: early on in the codebase's development, someone writes up a document specifying the stylistic conventions to be used when writing code. This can go from the highest level ("Everything is in C, no GCC-specific extensions allowed") to the lowest ("If you write conditionals without putting braces around the block that gets executed, I'm going to come to your office and yell at you.") Then, for the next few years, everyone completely ignores the style guide; the only person who even remembers it exists is the person who wrote it. New developers are hired, and they begin writing code that is completely at odds with the style guidelines, and from then on, whenever any developer has to look at anyone else's code, she (or he) has to spend an extra few minutes acclimating to the subtle differences. Not because those difference are significant, but just because the code looks different. That makes the code less maintainable. Code reviews give developers a perfect opportunity to say to each other "Hey, the way you use tabs instead of spaces in these files? I hate that. It makes me want to die." This sort of gentle (yet loving) peer pressure is much more effective at achieving a consistent style across a large codebase than a document checked into the depths of CVS somewhere.
Find the Guru (or, alternatively) Find the Bozo. Developing software is an activity that takes long periods of intense concentration. The cost of an interruption is severe — a 5 minute question in the middle of the day can cost a half-hour for the interruptee to get back up to speed. If you're like me, that means there's a tendency to huddle in front of your monitor and try to not talk to people. If you don't talk to people, you can't get a good sense of their abilities, and having that sense will be important when you hit a tough problem and need to decide who you are going to interrupt. Code reviews provide a structured way (you can plan for the interruptions in advance) for you to talk to your coworkers about their code, or simply to see how their minds work. Along a similar vein, if there's someone who consistently writes lousy code, and never seems to improve no matter how often their problem patterns are discussed, that will come out fairly quickly as well.
Knowledge transfer. I've heard the following sentiment many times, in many places: "Oh, man, if [insert name here] ever leaves the company, we're so hosed. He's the only person who understands [heinously complex software component]." Sometimes people will say that because the employee in question is, say, Albert Einstein, and the component in question is the Gravity-Powered Relativity Time Machine. However, the common case is that the employee is just really, really smart, and is the only person who has taken the time to understand the component. If you're doing regular code reviews, then you have a natural chance to expose other people to the heinously complex (and not so complex) parts of your software before the crisis where the guru gets hit by a truck and no one else knows how the software works.
How To Do Code Reviews
The only real rule is "do what works for you and your organization." But I'll share my prejudices with you anyway.
Review everything, all the time. If reviews are only done during "special" times, you're just setting up another bit of process that will hit everyone at the most stressful time. Reviews should be soothing, because they are helping you insure that the bugs get caught in-house, instead of by the customers. Making them a regular part of your process will pay off in spades.
Review incrementally. There's a tendency, particularly when just getting the review process off the ground, to want to grab Alessio, pull him into a room, and ask him to go through 8,500 lines of code all at once. This will lead to utter failure. You'll get some good comments for about the first 100 lines of code, and then you'll get 8,400 lines of "Yeah, that looks good. Let's go on to the next section." Every checkin should be reviewed. If the developer is working in a branch, do the reviews in that branch as the developer checks in his manageable pieces. Don't wait for it to hit the trunk in one huge indigestible mass. There is a time and a place for the huge review of everything, but that's during the design phase. Mixing design review and comments about off-by-one errors is begging for failure.
Small review panels are better. There's a saying in the open source world: "Many eyes make all bugs shallow." This is bunk. Many eyes make only shallow bugs shallow. Having a large review group just lets the phenomenon known as diffusion of responsibility kick in. Plus, the collective cost to the organization of reviews goes up exponentially. One or two reviewers is fine. More than that is overkill. A good rule of thumb is: if you need a projector to do the code review, you're doomed. You can do your reviews in a meeting, or you can do them by email. Whatever works for you.
Track the review status formally. Your bug tracking system should tell you whether a given change has been reviewed or not. If you rely on developers' memories, the tendency will be for people to say "Uh, yeah, I think I looked at that. It was OK."
So: review early, review everything, review incrementally, and review in small groups. Do this, and your code will be better, more consistent, more maintainable, and your bug count will go down.
Now, if only I could develop a process for getting my articles reviewed before I post them.
Additional ResourcesDarley J M & Latane B., Bystander intervention in emergencies: diffusion of responsibility. J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 8:377-83, 1968. [New York Univ. and Columbia Univ., New York, NY]
March 15, 2005
The restaurant experience can be a tricky thing to optimize. Sometimes you are just after a fun time with good company, and so the nature of the space (or the booze) is more impotrant than the food. More often though, especially for me, the goal is to both have a good time and to get the best food possible. This can be especially hard for those of us afflicted with a particular psychological malady which I will call "Trillin's syndrome", after the New Yorker writer who pointed it out to me. You know you suffer from this syndrome if, after ordering in a restaurant, you are overcome with an uncontrollable feeling of dread and terror caused by the thought that the other patrons have somehow obtained food that is much much better than what you have just ordered.
The real world often works to exacerbate this problem by placing artificial barriers in your way. The canonical example of this is the menu you can't read. Chinese restaurants have mastered this technique, generally putting an entire wall of food that I cannot order without a translator right next to my table, while making me stare at the dishes for the rubes and losers who can only speak English.
Many of my most crushing restaurant traumas came at the hands of Chinese restaurants, most often when I brought the wrong company along. I am as much in favor of having a good time with good friends as the next guy, but when you are after food and you have a limited number of chances to get it, you have to be very careful about who you eat with.
For example, once, during an unfortunate stint working in Pasadena, CA, I brought a fellow contractor who seemed to be a stand up fellow in most other ways to a fantastic Cantonese seafood joint in Monterey Park. I hooked up with this man primarily because he had a car and I did not. I probably should have been more selective.
For those unfamiliar with the LA area, Monterey Park is one oasis in the otherwise sterile concrete strip mall desert that is Southern California (for reference, two other such places are Zankou Chicken and Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles). Here, in the middle of an otherwise completely forgettable and soulless expanse of urban wilderness sits a sprawling suburban Chinatown. So we drove there, past the huge Chinese mall, the Costco-sized Ranch 99 Chinese Market, and so on and pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant.
The place had two huge rooms, with a wall-sized bank of fish tanks down the middle. In these tanks were various swimming creatures in all shapes and sizes. I craved to order something, anything, from the tanks, but the sight of the food still in its live form appeared to make my lunch partner a bit queasy. The situation was not improved when one of the staff walked over to one tank with a large bucket and pulled out what must be a 5 or 10lb gray/green mass with a clam shell on one end and brought it to a table near ours. Our eyes followed the bucket over to its destination. I'm thought, "I wonder where geoduck is on the menu". The look on my partner's face said "what the hell is that, and how do I get out of here"?
There were, of course, two menus, one of which iwass written completely in Chinese. The menu I could read featured General Tso's Chicken, Shrimp with Lobster sauce, and so on. So we ordered two lunch specials, and I sighed deeply as the food arrived at the same time as the table next to ours received a huge platter of shrimp which had been steamed live, shell and head on, like tiny little lobsters. I turned to my partner and said, "We should have ordered that." He looked a bit taken aback, and replied, "But the heads are still on the shrimp."
Don't let this happen to you.
Luckily, this story had a happy ending because I was able to return to the place the next week with my friend and his new Cantonese girlfriend. All lovers of Chinese food should know someone with a Cantonese girlfriend. The shrimp were awesome.
March 14, 2005
This week's Things That Can Kill You is carbon monoxide. I hope you enjoy it.
These were produced some time ago, and this is the last of them. Which raises the difficult question: should I make more?
Whether I do or not depends, in part, upon you. Since this might be the last one posted for a while, please share your comments below.
March 11, 2005
Recently, a friend of mine who is new to Pittsburgh paid his first visit to Whole Foods. His comment on the experience was:
This is the place to shop if you enjoy paying a 50-100% markup over traditional supermarket prices so that you can feel good about how much you are doing for the native tribesmen of Mek-a-lek-a-ding-dong. Aside from that, they do have a good selection of international and esoteric foods.I've heard this expressed by others, too. A common nickname for the chain around here is "Whole Paycheck." I have a complex and conflicted relationship with Whole Foods, so I thought I would share some of my thoughts on the place. In the process, perhaps some of my tips will help you shop there without paying 100% markup over Giant Eagle.
I feel like I should offer a disclaimer, in advance: you might read this article and think that I don't like Whole Foods very much. Nothing could be further from the truth. I like the excellent selection of just about everything. I like that their produce is always fresh, and that their staff is helpful, and the great selection of organics. I like that their very presence in Pittsburgh has forced Giant Eagle to try to improve in certain ways. The only reason I have such strong opinions about what is or is not "worth it" at Whole Foods is because when I go there, I feel like the proverbial kid in a candy store, because I want to buy everything. But that conflicts with my cheapskate gene, and so I have to develop value strategies to maintain my sanity.
If you're anything like me, you buy more or less the same things each time you go into a supermarket. So you end up spending around the same amount of money every time you shop in the same market. I've distilled this down to a formula I think of as the "ceteris paribus price-per-item." Think of it this way: except for some packaged goods and produce, the store has nearly complete control over the minimum quantity of whatever item it is they will sell you. In my experience, it's helpful to think that grocery stores have a target price per abstract item that you will pay, regardless of what the actual price of any given real item is. So the first thing to do is to figure out the target price per abstract item. As an example, Giant Eagle has a ceteris paribus price per item of about $3.50. Obviously, 3 pounds of filet mignon don't cost the same as a pack of gum, but the technique works surprisingly well: count the number of items in your shopping cart. Multiply by $3.50. That's how much you'll be spending when you hit the checkout line, if you're not actively trying to be a smart (or at least cheap) shopper. Using this technique, I've never been off by more than about 3%.
I thought of this calculation because of a trick my dad has. He uses a similar technique in nice restaurants. The accuracy of the results is uncanny. Murray's Law states that the per-person price of a meal (including wine and dessert) will be twice the cost of the most expensive entrée on the menu. It doesn't matter that you didn't order the most expensive entrée. The formula still works.
The ceteris paribus price per item at Whole Foods is about $7. So my friend's estimate of the markup is about right.
So first, you need to decide what it is that you're shopping at a given store for. You can go in to Whole Foods and just buy a pack of (organic, free-range) gum, and "only" spend $2.50 instead of $7. Life is full of tradeoffs. If you're insistent that the only way you can have a quality of life that satisfies you is to do all your shopping at Whole Foods, and don't want to sacrifice any indulgences, then there's not much I can do to help you. But you can get pretty far by being flexible and recognizing what is and isn't a good value at Whole Foods, and either avoiding the expensive items altogether, or obtaining them elsewhere, for less.
Basically, there are only two types of things you should be buying at Whole Foods:
- Things that are cheaper than they are elsewhere
- Things that you can't get, conveniently, anywhere else
There actually are a few good deals at Whole Foods if you know what to look for. Arugula, the best green in the universe, is usually only about $1.50/pound there (Giant Eagle sells it in little plastic jewelboxes for something like $5 for 6 ounces. I am not kidding.) In the produce aisles as you walk in, keep an eye open for specials. During the summer, they often use berries as loss leaders. Other fruits and vegetables are frequently put on sale. Organic milk prices are comparable to Giant Eagle — usually a little cheaper, in fact, as long as you avoid the glass bottles. Likewise with heavy cream and some of the yogurt products.
The meat department is worth checking for bargains — the specials are fewer and further between than in produce, but you can often find odd things in the cold case at clearance prices. Basically, there's something on sale every week, but you can never be sure what it is. So try not to get your heart set on anything before arriving and taking a look at what they're trying to unload that week.
You'd think the "bulk foods" aisle would be a place you could really clean up, but you have to be careful. Some of the items often cost more in bulk form than those packaged on the shelves just down the lane. Double check. Or better yet, go to the East End Food Co-op for that stuff, instead. Everything will be cheaper and fresher.
The loss leaders aside, most of the things in Whole Foods cost about the same or more than what you'd see at Giant Eagle. The goal of the store is to convince you of one of two things: that it's worth the price in convenience to pay twice as much for the same stuff you can get elsewhere, or that the things you'll find at Whole Foods are staggeringly unique and therefore are "justified" as a little extravagance. After all, you're worth it, right?
Well, no. Probably, you're not. Anyone who is willing to pay $19/pound for Roquefort Abeille when the same cheese is available just about anywhere else for $11/pound is definitely not worth a little extravagance.
The cheese counter is probably the biggest danger in the entire store. It provides a very wide variety of fresh cheeses, and the staff is super-helpful. There's an occasional "bargain," but at the Whole Foods cheese counter "bargain" tends to mean "only pay $1/pound more than you'd pay at Penn Mac, instead of $5/pound more." The main difference between the meat counter and the cheese counter is that the meat counter is selling some products — particularly the dry aged meat, and some of the organics — that you really, honestly can't get anywhere else in town. There are few things at the cheese counter at Whole Foods that you absolutely, positively can't get at Penn Mac, McGinness Sisters, or one of the various cheese wholesalers in the region. If you absolutely must have whatever item they've got there that you can't find anywhere else, go ahead and help yourself, but the only difference between the Mimolette at Whole Foods and that in the Strip is the $7/pound price gap.
The meat counter has many unique, expensive items — such as the aforementioned dry aged steaks and various organics — that you can't get (in person) anywhere else in Pittsburgh. So splurging on those on occasion seems reasonable to me, although whether they're worth the premium is a question you can only answer for yourself. The meat counter also has a lot of run of the mill junk that is just the same as what you'd find anywhere else, only it costs twice as much (such as the ridiculous yuppie sausages for $6/pound). And there's usually always something on sale that is cheap enough that I can use it to make stock without feeling guilty.
I have friends who swear by the fish counter because they find Benkowitz's hours inconvenient. This is a shame, since Whole Foods' fish costs twice as much and is only half as good.
In summary: keep your eyes open for items on sale. Know what things cost at other area stores, only buy items that are not stupidly overpriced, and don't get tricked into thinking that Whole Foods is the sole supplier for something that's actually widely available.
The best way to know what's available in Pittsburgh, of course, is to shop in the Strip District.
If you apply the tips in this article carefully, you should be able to save enough cash to buy at least 2 or 3 Xbox games each year. Shopping is about keeping your priorities straight.
March 10, 2005
I like Halo 2 on Xbox Live. Since I am not innately talented at this sort of thing, I have to get by on single glorious flashes of brilliance to make up for my generally inept level of gameplay. This makes my online experience a sort of bipolar disorder, bouncing between the completely juvenile and the utterly sublime.
One Cool Trick
Here is a cool trick that even I can use fairly well. It is affectionately called the bitchslap. There are three variations on this technique:
Classic Bitchslap. Grab a plasma pistol and the battle rifle. Charge up the pistol by holding down fire but not releasing. As you approach your victim at medium distance, let the plasma bolt go and switch to the rifle. Aim at the head and let fly with the rifle. If you hit with both shots, it's a nearly instant kill.
Lazy Bitchslap. Basically the same technique as above, but dual wield the plasma pistol and the SMG. Let the plasma bolt go and then open up with the SMG. This works better in close quarters because if you get too far away, the SMG is completely useless. Note that this seems to work better than using the plasma rifle and SMG, assuming you keep the pistol charged.
Magnum Bitchslap. This is like the lazy variation, but you use the magnum instead of the SMG. Works well at all distances, but you need good aim with the magnum for a quick kill. The best thing here is getting a clean head-shot and watching your enemy spin in the air like a ragdoll.
This trick is easy enough to do that I actually manage to beat people with it, so it must be pretty easy. It won't work against people with much better aim and much better twitching than you.
May 2005 Update: The recent multiplayer update from Bungie has removed the bitchslap weapon combos from some of the Slayer maps in the main playlists. I guess it really was too easy.
Bad Ass Moments
When things like this happen, you feel cool:
Skull Bashing. In Oddball running into someone with a super powerful weapon, like the rocket launcher or sword, beating them down with the skull, and staying alive, is cool.
High Angle Shotgun. For some reason, single shot kills with the shotgun while airborne are fun.
Turnabout. Beating someone down after they have stuck you is fun. Running up to them and exploding in their face so they die too is also fun.
Switcheroo Assassination. Here is a trick from Sprang. Someone is shooting you from behind, so you run for cover, but when you turn the corner, you just stop. About half the time the guy chasing you will run right by and you can assasinate him.
One Time Only
Stealth Stickies. We were playing snipers on Burial Mounds. I ran up the tunnel into a base, and I saw Pete scanning the horizon trying to line up a shot. I walked up to him and softly stuck a grenade on his back. The last thing I heard in the headset before he blew up into little pieces was a short obscenity.
Long Range Rockets. Here's something that only happened to me once. I was playing Rocket Slayer on the Colossus map. This map is fairly large. I spawned, and I noticed a small body running in a straight line clear across on the other side of the map. I shot off a rocket in that direction and then forgot about it. About ten seconds later I got a "You killed XXX" message.
Airborne Sniping. Here's another thing that only happened once, also on Colossus. I spawned near the jumpy pad and saw Sprang and his friend Dan below me fighting near the pad. I jumped down to try and throw a grenade between them, but they both jumped onto the pad, shooting each other as they did so. I looked up and noticed that I was right under the airborne pair. I aimed carefully, and shot Sprang out of the air like a hunted duck.
Not So Bad Ass Moments
Radar Blindness. One of the most embarrassing ways to die is to get hit over the head with the butt of a rifle while you are just lining up a shot on someone else who you have been chasing all over the map. Five minutes of running followed by a quick death from one whack.
You Fell To Your Death. Spawning, runnning down the ramp, taking a blind jump right off a clliff does not make you feel cool.
You Just Plain Suck. This is how I usually die in Slayer games. I run down a hallway, I feel gunfire coming from behind me. I turn around and jump to try and shoot back, but before I even manage to aim my dead body is flying through the air, having been shot in the head.
Not so Instant Death. This is when you come face to face with someone and unload 2 full SMG clips into them and then fall over dead. Very demoralizing.
Losing with the Sword. Missing someone with the special energy sword attack twice and then getting shot in the head makes you feel pretty bad.
Instant Death. The last time I played with Sprang's friend Dan, he was practicing his Magnum Bitchslap technique. So, I would run up the ramp, see him, start unloading with two guns at once, and die in 1.5 seconds. This happened nine straight times.
High School Moment
Here is why you never play with the headset on. The team slayer game had just started, and we all heard in the headset: "Dude. I might have to randomly quit at any time, man, because like, I'm not supposed to be playing Xbox and if my parents catch me playing I'll be totally grounded. So, if I'm gone that's why."
It's better to not know this kind of thing, especially because the guy will probably beat you down ten or fifteen times.
My Single Best Shining Moment
The other night we got into a Team Slayer game on Midship. Midship is a tricky map because it is very tight quarters and it's hard to stay alive for a long time. I managed to grab the shotgun off the middle of the floor. One red ran out at me and I uncharacteristically managed to get a bead on him and shoot him down before he melted me with his plasma rifle. Red number two came down the ramp and BLAM. Two down. This was already going better than normal. I count myself lucky, in general, if I manage to get two people to fall down before I die.
Our blue teammate started yelling that we should move together, so I got in behind him and a red fell down near me and dropped the sword. So I picked it up and I had the two best weapons on this map (remember, close quarters). I ran up the ramp to the other side of the map and beat a red down. Turning around in a hail of plasma bolts, I saw two more red running up the hallway. Two swings, two more kills. At this point, the disembodied voice said "Killing spree!". This doesn't happen for me very often.
What followed was the strangest sequence of Halo 2 play that I think I've ever experienced. For the next five minutes I literally could not fall over dead. It was like the enemy fire was moving just slightly slower than it usually does. Instead of dying just before swinging the sword, I always got my swing off before my shield was gone. I ran from one side of the map to the other slicing every red I met in two while avoiding grenades, assassinations and long range sniper shots. Finally I ran into a group of three reds and took one hit too many. When I finally fell over, final stats for the game showed that my killing spree ended at 15. I wish I had heard the disembodied voice say "Rampage." I missed it in all the excitement.
March 09, 2005
Lately, my game playing time has been mostly budgeted to games that the industry puts into the general genre of "Role Playing Game" or "RPG". Before Knights of the Old Republic I had mostly ignored games like these, but since that game I have delved into Mario and Luigi, Disgaea, Shadow Hearts and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. All this exposure has gotten me to thinking about the defining characteristic of this game genre.
If you ask the average dork on the street what an RPG is, he will say "Dungeons and Dragons". That is, role playing games are about a small group of dorks sitting around a table with a head dork running the game. Each dork takes the "role" of a character in the narrative that the whole dork party is collaborating to create. The dorkmaster provides the general framework within which this narrative evolves, but nothing is in general set in stone.
Of course, I'm being overly mean to people who play these games. But since I have been one of them, I think that's OK. In addition, I'm being overly kind to the intellectual quality of the games themselves. It's not really like this. In my time with D&D, the game was mostly about running around, getting kick ass powerful, beating the crap out of stuff, and then getting rich. The rest of it was just edifice on which to hang the fun beating up of things.
Designers of computer and console RPGs have learned this lesson well. Think about the list of games that have been on the top of the RPG heap over the last few years. I think it is pretty clear that they are structured around exactly the above mechanics. Run around, beat stuff up, get rich. Of course, this differs somewhat from the idyllic early days of the tabletop RPG.
Consider that in most cases, your character in the game is provided for you. Some titles make a big show about you being able to pick your race, or skin color, or the clothes you wear, but this is all just surface fluff. Sure you can pick your "class" and whatnot, but this doesn't really change how the game goes. Narratively speaking, in a state of the art RPG, you no more play your own "role" than you do in Half Life, where you are anyone you want to be, as long as it is Gordon. Also, the structure of the game is generally a fixed linear narrative, with some more open ended optional side branches thrown in. This is because computers are not as smart as human meatbags when it comes to making up narrative on the fly. Having a more open ended and flexible narrative is a holy grail of game design for some people, but I don't find the notion that compelling. I think basically linear narratives are fun.
So now the question is, what do we give our little avatar to do to reach the end of the game? If this were an FPS, that task would involve running around the world and making things explode until you get to the next cutscene, then repeat. As you play more, you might get better, and the levels can get marginally harder, but for the most part the challenge is in making a relatively repetitive task not get boring.
Traditionally, computer and console RPGs have solved this problem by devising a clever way to appear to mix up the game play while avoiding the requirement that the player have great reflexes. This is good for old guys like me. First, introduce a parameter in the game engine that I will call R. This parameter basically determines how good you, the player, are at the game. Second, arrange so that as you progress through the game, this parameter increases along various dimensions. You can take more damage, cast more spells, buy upgraded weapons, protect yourself with better armor, and so on. Third, have the game make a great show of informing you about exactly how much R has increased lately. As R goes up, you can fight monsters that also have a higher R. If the game does its job, it balances your abilities with the abilities of the enemy so you always get to kick ass in new and more powerful ways, and are never in any real danger of losing. This way, the game keeps you moving forward from cut scene to cut scene and everyone is happy. Once in a while, the game will miss and you have to run around and increase R so that you can get past the next Boss.
Ultimately, this is what a computer RPG is about. You run around, increase R and kick ass. This structure is so enticing that it has wormed its way into various other game genres as well. You can't open a gaming magazine without reading "with RPG elements" in the advertising copy. So we get golf games "with RPG elements" where your little clubs hit further as you use them more. We get platform/action games where you gain "hearts" as you play more and your weapons get more powerful as you use them. Even the most mainline of mainline sports games do this. In the Franchise Mode in Madden the stats for your players increase as they play well in simulated games, and thus make your team more bad-ass as time goes by. I don't even know what those stats mean, but I know the team gets better over time.
At this point, old time RPG purists and luddites are probably bemoaning the fact that so much of the "social and collaborative" experience is lost in the translation of the tabletop game to the computer. I don't see much to mourn. If you really want to do classic role playing, then go buy the books and find a small group of dorks to help you out.
Console and computer RPG fans are also probably mad at me for saying that their games basically boil down to a great quest for increased stats. To them I say, this is a feature, not a bug. I have personally been enjoying these mostly linear romps from cut scene to cut scene. Kicking butt is fun. Doing so while watching R go up steadily is also fun. I think this is a win-win situation.
So anyway, where was that copy of KOTOR II?
March 08, 2005
Editor's Note: An anonymous source dropped this in my mailbox. I cannot vouch for its authenticity, but I wanted to share it with my readers because I thought it was an interesting read. "Xenon" is the codename for the Xbox 2.
Cc: Ballmer, Steve
From: Samuelson, Johnathan
Subject: Things Xbox can teach Xenon
The Xenon product launch is rapidly approaching. Everyone on the team has been executing at 100%, and I have every confidence that the hard work we've put into this product is going to translate to meeting and exceeding market expectations. When you're pushing so hard to make sure we ship it's easy to lose track of the big picture. So I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on what we did right when we launched Xbox, where we missed the mark, and how that experience influenced our decisions on Xenon.
From the 50,000 foot level, the Xbox launch was an unqualified success. Our stated and actual goal was to establish Microsoft and our Home and Entertainment Division as a serious player in the game console marketspace. We accomplished that goal in record time. In a space where our main competitor had successfully bullied competing products off of the shelves, we established a beachhead and gained parity in presence in both online stores and retail outfits. (The marketing and sales guys deserve huge accolades for achieving this deliverable -- even today, holding a minority market share, you can walk into any retail outlet and we're holding nearly half of the shelf space. If your engineering leads complain about the tight schedule, remind them that the sales and marketing guys held up their end when it counted, and we need them to do the same.)
When we zoom in to the implementation details, the picture isn't quite as rosy. While our execution was completely to plan, the plan itself had a flaw. That flaw centered around the decision loop involving game developers.
Video game publishers are unreliable. A key aspect of the design cycle for Xbox involved focus groups with the game publishers and program managers to discover what features would induce them to develop for the platform before it was established. The developer feedback was incorporated into Xbox. Because we believed the developers, we got screwed.
The most obvious example is the hard drive. Game publishers swore up, down, left and right that if we could include a hard drive in the system, they would use it to bring entirely new, innovative forms of gameplay to the platform. There would be games developed for Xbox, they said, that wouldn't even be possible on competing platforms. On the basis of this feedback, we took a leap of faith and included a hard drive in Xbox. The hard drive increased the size and unit cost of the console, and decreased MTBF, which in turn increased our support load. Overall, it has been a huge cost drain.
And in five years you can point to only one single title that uses it in an interesting way.
Our friends the game developers have used this component, subsidized by us at great expense, as a glorified built-in memory card. Their games are developed to support the least-common denominator current-generation hardware.
It was an expensive lesson, but at least now we have enough market penetration to know that while we should always take game developers seriously, we should not bet the business on their being honest or competent. Those publishers that came to our platform early did it for a couple of reasons.
First, our development environment is light-years ahead of the competition. Anyone who could use the DirectX API -- which is everyone in the world -- could write a game for Xbox. Total Cost of Development for Xbox was thus significantly lower compared to the competition. We've all agonized over the Xenon guts being swapped out, but as you know, we are 100% committed to providing a completely transparent development experience for the publishers. Our APIs will continue to be easier to use, more consistent, and more powerful than our competitors'.
Second, they were afraid that we might succeed, and they'd be left standing at the station, watching us pull away.
We managed to push this second point a bit with our farsighted decision to strongly fund and support our own Microsoft Game Studio. In addition to the obvious financial consequence that our per-unit margin is higher on games we've developed in house, Microsoft Games represents our main stick for goading lazy game developers into actually using the features our platform offers. One successful game demonstrating that customers will buy a game with a given feature is worth two hundred developer seminars. The struggle with Electronic Arts over Live support reveals this clearly. It took a lot of work, but EA will never ship another Xbox sports title that doesn't support Live. Even though our own sports titles were not revenue leaders, we must not underestimate their impact on the market as technology leaders.
The other role of Microsoft Games is to act as market expanders. Our research shows that EA Sports, for example, sells to the same consumers over and over again. That's a nice market to have. Microsoft Games productions are designed not just to sell to the hardcore niche, but to expand the market. There are more people that don't play console videogames than do. The game publishers, and the other console developers, aren't seriously aiming for that market. We are. We think that given the right titles, we can find those consumers, sell to them, and bring them online with us.
Which brings us to Live, which is the crown jewel in our product line. It is no exaggeration to say that Live is the Home and Entertainment Division. Without Live, we are just another hardware and software vendor. With Live, we are an ISP that doesn't actually have to spend money to move packets. The current Live service is engineered to take us through our most optimistic Xenon projections. We will be about halfway through Jakarta's life cycle before we have to sink significant capital to increase Live capacity. Live requires traffic to flow on our infrastructure only during the meetup and resync phases of the protocol. In-game traffic is peer to peer. Live is our future: a continuing income stream that is almost entirely margin for a minimal customer support load. It's pure gravy.
Our goal for Xenon is, and must be: 100% attachment rate for Live. That's the brass ring.
You, I, and Steve all know that we won't actually reach 100%, but that's the goal. The hardware will make getting online easier than they can imagine. We're going to push the customers before they buy Xenon. We're going to push them when they open the box. The parameters of the offering are still up in the air, but as far as I'm concerned, 6 months free isn't out of the question. Every step of the experience is going to let the customer know that if they don't join Live, they will regret it forever. Live represents the difference between our product and the competition. Live represents an experience you share with your friends. The competitors' products are something you use to sit in your house and play with yourself.
Innovative games, easy development for third party publishers, and Live. That's the big picture, guys. That's the message we want to send over the next ten months. The gaming press will try to define the debate in terms of who can push the most pixels. Even though we'll win those comparisons, that's not on-message. While you're heads-down meeting your commits this summer, take a minute every so often and just repeat to yourself: Innovation, ease of development, and Live. If we hit those marks, we win the war.
That's the story. That's where we've been, and you all know where we're going: to the very top of the market. So let's get out there and execute, execute, execute!
March 07, 2005
Resistance is futile! Today's high-voltage offering is Things That Can Kill You, Volume 3 - Electricity. Enjoy!
March 04, 2005
Pete's recent rumination on creamy eggs got me to thinking about something that I don't understand. Why does no one who runs a restaurant these days know how to cook eggs? I can count on the first two fingers of my left hand the number of times I've had good scrambled eggs served to me in the last year or so. Once was at Dottie's in San Franscisco, and once was at the excellent Taco Loco Taqueria in Pittsburgh (I'm not kidding, it really is good Mexican in Pittsburgh). My bitterness stems from how easy it is to make scrambled eggs.
Leaving aside the French Creamy version, I give you my mom's staple breakfast food:
1. 2 eggs
2. 2 sprigs of scallion, chopped as fine as you care to.
3. 1 pinch sea salt.
4. Black pepper to taste.
Crack the eggs in a bowl. With a fork or chopsticks, beat the eggs until the whites and the yolks mix well. Mix in the salt, pepper and scallion.
Now heat a non-stick pan until hot, and add olive oil. When the oil is really hot, throw in the eggs. Stir the eggs around for 30 seconds to 1 minute until they start to get solid, but are still soft inside. The trick is to get the eggs hard enough but not too hard. Serve with toast, sausage, rice, chinese pickles. Whatever.
For more of a Chinese style egg, mix in soy sauce instead of salt. For omelettes, do the same thing, but flip the eggs over in one piece rather than mixing them around in the pan. For a dinner treat, add grape tomatoes and Fontina cheese to the mix, don't stir stuff around too much and then put the pan in the oven to get a nice frittata.
So, what's wrong with eggs I get when I eat out? They are universally overcooked, undersalted, and generally served to me in a cold chewy rubbery mess. The worst are the buffet eggs that sit out on a steam table for 3 hours becoming a completely solid yellow brick of pain and nastiness.
Anyway, be nice to your eggs. Keep it simple, keep it fast, and for god's sake put the salt in before serving.
March 03, 2005
My friend Nat and I were talking about Gran Turismo 4. He was saying that the vibe he got was that they had cut most of the cool features out of it when they realized that even without those features they would still sell a kerjillion copies of it:
Really, they could put a vaguely car-shaped turd in a box andThis was after I had been playing the game for a few days. Upon reading this, I decided that my entire review of GT4 was going to be "It's a vaguely car-shaped turd in a box."
people would not only buy it but write impassioned fifteen-page essays
about how it was the best game ever and shriekingly deny any rumors of
I've played a little more since then, and have a little more to say about it. But if you want the short version, it is this: Gran Turismo 4 is a stunning $50 argument for spending $12 on a used copy of Gran Turismo 3 and then using the $38 you have left over to buy pizza and beer.
There are things to like about GT4. Most of them, however, were things that one could like equally well about GT3. But let's not talk in generalities. Let's get down to brass tacks.
There's been much said about the graphics in GT4. All of it is a damnable lie. I'm one of those lucky people who has an HDTV, and the best you can say about GT4 is this: in 1080i mode, it is merely unimpressive, and not actually utterly hateful. It only shimmers a little bit. The textures are only somewhat fuzzy. The jaggies are not the worst I've ever seen.
When you step down to 480i mode -- the mode 95% of all players will see, day in, day out -- the full uglitude of GT4 is revealed. In 480i, the game is a dog, uglier than a Brittany Spaniel whose face has been half gnawed off by a badger. In all seriousness, the previous edition of the game looked better on a standard TV. If what you care about is good looks, this is not your game.
"But the screenshots look so good!" I hear you saying. Yes. They do. In a stroke of what can only be described as evil-scientist level genius, Polyphony provided a nifty feature in the game, "Photo Mode." This lets you take photos of "your" cars in various scenic locales -- most of which are not in the game, except for the photo shoots -- and then lets you export the photo onto a flash drive in super-high resolution. Then you post the photos on the Internet to deceive your friends into thinking that GT4 doesn't look like ass. It's a brilliant idea. But it's got nothing to do with how the game looks while you're actually driving.
Graphics aren't everything, though, and the game definitely plays somewhat better than the previous edition. Gone is the "driving through a vat of butter" feeling, replaced instead by ludicrous amounts of understeer on every vehicle (including front-engine, rear-wheel drive monsters) at speed. I was ready to declare that the handling in the game was psychotically wrong, when I decided to play around a bit with the settings. It turns out that the default settings for every car in the game have "active stability management" set to counteract oversteer at the highest level. This makes the cars handle like no car anyone has ever actually driven. If you turn off the ASM, the handling of the cars becomes much more accurate, and the game becomes much more fun.
I should say a little more about the ASM. It has independent settings for "protecting" you from oversteer and understeer, which doesn't really make a lot of sense. The basic implementation of ASM in the game is this: Let's say you're coming in to a corner a little too fast, and you hit the throttle too early. The ASM system says "OH MY GOD. If I let you turn this much, you might OVERSTEER! Then the car will spin out! HAVE NO FEAR. I WILL SAVE YOU." And it prevents you from oversteering by keeping you from turning so instead of spinning out you go in a straight line off the course, and hit a wall.
I'm not sure I have the words to accurately capture how completely brain-dead this is.
On the one hand, you could argue that "tuning the car" is an essential part of the game, and isn't it great that the developers let me discover this for myself? I can hear you getting ready to argue that. The problem with this argument is that it's silly for me to "tune" a car to make it act like it would when I drive it off of the dealer's lot. If anything, tuning is about making a car act less like its stock model, not more. So this is just a stupid decision on Polyphony's part. With ASM on the default settings, the game is completely unplayable (especially amusing are the license tests that encourage you to "drift" around turns on dirt courses, which you can't actually do well if the ASM is deliberately defeating your oversteer).
Polyphony replaced the boring and confusing single-screen menu system of GT3 with a boring and confusing side-scrolling menu system in GT4. 2.5 engineers probably worked full time on that menu system for 11 months. Their next project will probably involve little animated menus for DVDs that keep me from watching the movie as quickly as I'd like.
The menus are a mishmash of choices superimposed on a fairly abstract map of the world. So if you want to buy a German car, you go to Germany and navigate through the car manufacturers and find the new car dealers. If you want to race a specific race, you have to hunt around in various "stadiums" until you find the one you want, except for the races that are sponsored by manufacturers, which are somewhere else. It's not the worst menu system I've ever used. It does, I guess, get the job done.
GT4 has detailed information on every car in the game, but frustratingly presents that information via a side-scrolling marquee view that prevents you from actually reading the items in less than 10 minutes. So the game might have, for example, three paragraphs of text on the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VIII. And you really want to read them, because they're interesting and well-written, but in order to read them you have to suffer through their scrolling into view like a stock ticker, 6 words at a time. The Japanese version of the game just gave you a screenfull of text that you could read like a normal human being, but apparently because the localization team hates me I have to suffer. It is to weep.
There are more cars -- 700 in total -- but as in previous games, a large percentage of them are Skylines. I happen to like Skylines, but if you care more about, say, American muscle cars than obscure Nissan models, you might find yourself a bit chagrined.
Like its previous version, GT4 makes you trudge through too many license tests and too many entry-level races to "earn money" to make progress. The license tests themselves are interesting, but I wish they were optional.
One feature that is new since GT3 is the addition of "B-spec" mode. Essentially, you are directing a computer driver, gently suggesting that he try to pass an opponent, or that he ease up a bit, or that he come in for a pit stop. If you're one of the intrepid souls who was an early beta-tester of LawnMan 2: Watching Grass Grow, B-spec mode will be right up your alley.
One unquestionable plus about the game is its selection of courses. There are a good selection of city courses -- Paris, New York, Seoul, and Hong Kong have been added, although I do miss Rome. And in addition to Laguna Seca, you can now race on Motegi, Suzuka, Tsukuba, Fuji Speedway, and the Nordschliefe at Nürburgring. This, more than anything, is the best reason to buy the game if, like me, you need your racing games to have a good sense of place. There are also about 10 "original circuits" that are utterly bland and forgettable, but given the faithful rendition of Suzuka, I'm willing to cut them some slack on this issue.
The AI is indistinguishable from that in GT3, which is to say it is disgustingly horrible, an abomination of Biblical proportions. If there was an option to win races by simply turning off the stupid, irritating, useless, and utterly unchallenging computer cars and just racing against the clock, I would turn it on in a heartbeat. I have nothing positive to say about the rubber-band AI in the game. It is a complete travesty from top to bottom.
The rear-view mirror in the game is still useles in that the perspective it gives is somehow pointless -- cars look about 6 times further away in the mirror than they do when you look behind you. Can this possibly take more than 3 lines of code to fix? Gotham got it right. Gran Turismo doesn't.
So should you buy it? Well, if you want to buy my copy for $45 and save yourself about $10 on what it would cost you at Best Buy after tax, drop me a line. Otherwise: it depends on your motivation. If you're looking for car porn, and the USB photo feature sounds appealing to you, and you like the idea of having a semi-interactive catalog of cars from around the world, I think you can justify the purchase. If you're looking for a good driving simulator, I think you will be disappointed, and perhaps you should wait a few months until prices start to drop. If you're looking for a good racing game, no, you should not buy Gran Turismo 4.
That there are so many people who consider the Gran Turismo series to be the pinnacle of driving games just serves to reconfirm my prejudice that there are a lot of people out there who think they know how to drive, but don't.
March 02, 2005
The two best books that I've read about how to take pictures are Mountain Light by the late Galen Rowell and On Being a Photogapher by David Hurn and Bill Jay. The first is a book about landscape photography, while the second is a book about photojournalism. But I think both make essentially the same points about how to take good pictures. If you are really serious, put your computer down and go pick up those two books. They will tell you more than I ever can. But, here is a summary of what I think both of these books say.
The Big Picture
A good photograph is a compelling subject captured with good technique under the best light possible.
This is the single most important aspect of good photography. My belief is that all of the best photography starts out with the idea of documenting a subject that is important to the photographer. That is, the photographer has an interest showing the viewer something about a particular subject matter. In Rowell's case, this interest was in capturing elements of the emotions that he felt while in the landscape. In David Hurn's case, this interest was in portraying the events of the time from a journalistic point of view.
What the subject is is largely irrelevant. Edward Weston started an entire artistic movement by taking large format photographs of green peppers. What matters is that you as a photographer is interested in showing me as a viewer something about the subject that I find interesting. Perhaps something I have never seen before.
It is no coincidence that the most photography happens on trips, or when we are with our children or pets. These are subjects that we can all relate to and which we all have a strong motivation to document. The challenge for the working photographer is to find other subjects that are similarly compelling to you, and make them compelling for me, the viewer. This is where knowledge, research, technique and hard work pay off. Knowledge and research are needed to put you in the right place at the right time to document the interesting aspects of the subject. Technique and hard work are needed so that when the picture is in front of you, you can capture it rather than watching go past you while you fumble with the camera. Good technique is not hard to learn, it's just a matter of practice. Finding interesting pictures to take, that's hard work.
Galen Rowell spent a decade taking snapshots of his rock climbing trips through the mountains of California before finally landing an assignment to shoot rock climbers in Yosemite for National Geographic. In that time he developed his own style and technique of capturing his preferred subject. When he finally got his big break, he had the whole package: subject matter, knowledge, and technique, all ready to go.
Find Good Light
While you can take pictures in crappy light, it's much easier for the beginner or amateur to take good pictures in good light. Many otherwise marginal pictures can be saved because they have some interesting light in them. Here are some things to look for:
Directional light is good. The reason pictures taken with on camera flash look so flat and lifeless is because the light is coming completely from in front of the subject. Directional light from the side of the subject provides a more three dimensional look by molding the subject and providing nice shadows.
Low contrast light is good. Contrast is the enemy of the light recording medium. Whether you are shooting color slides, black and white or digital, the film or CCD can only record a limited range of values. In particular, your eyes can sense a much wider range than will be recordable by the camera. What looks like a group of people standing in the sunset to you looks like all white splotches and inky black shadows to the camera. You must always be aware of this.
Low contrast situations include light on a cloudy day (but don't include the sky), diffuse light coming in a window, flat fluorescent lights in an office, and so on. Contrasty situations include full sunlight mixed with dark shadows, interior light mixed with full sun coming in a window, the sky lit by sunlight mixed with the ground under clouds, bright light bulbs in a dark room, and so on. Look for flat light. It can be your friend.
Golden Hour. This refers to the window of time around sunrise and sunset when the sunlight is super warm and directional. This is the time to take pictures outside because you can get great mix of color while also really making the subject pop using the directional light. This is also when you can get great effects by mixing warm and cool colors in the same picture. Galen Rowell's book has dozens of pictures, all taken during Golden Hour.
Flash is no good. If it is so dark that you need to use the flash, then there are no interesting pictures to take. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it tends to be true. This rule could be restated as "there is no good light in the dark." The exception to this rule is if you happen to be carrying a whole studio lighting setup in your pocket. If that's the case, by all means, shoot away.
Shoot a Lot and Edit Well
This is not to say you should walk around with your camera shooting anything you see. This is to say that assuming you've done all the work needed to get in front of your subject with favorable light and in an interesting situation, you should take advantage of the situation by shooting a lot of pictures that you can edit down later.
Generally, people don't understand the scale of the number of frames you need to shoot to get the good stuff. Galen Rowell shot dozens of rolls of film for his first assignment for Geographic. The magazine said he should have shot more. Sports Illustrated shoots 16,000 frames during the Super Bowl for one magazine layout. Even Ansel Adams shot as much as he could, given the fact that we was carrying a 4x5 (or bigger) camera around in the mountains. When in a good situation, shoot more. This is especially true with digital, since editing digital pictures is so much easier and cheaper than film.
The flip side to this is to know how to edit the pictures and only show the good ones to people. This is not to say that you should throw away most of what you shoot. Just don't show it to people. If the difference between the keepers and the lousy shots are not immediately apparent to you, you need more practice.
There is a certain class of elitist cretin who will sneer at this approach as "run and gun" or "spray and pray" photography. The implication is that the only reason you would shoot a lot is to make up for the fact that you have lousy technique or are otherwise incompetent. These people like to think that Cartier Bresson just walked past that guy jumping over a puddle and shot that single famous frame off his hip. These people should be ignored. The idea is not to spray pictures praying that you get a good one. The point is to have your technique down and take as many good pictures as possible when the going is good so that you have as many choices as possible later.
Have Just the Equipment You Need, and Nothing More
Whenever I take a really good picture, Pete always goads me by saying "Wow, you must have a really good camera."
The general sentiment here is that for most purposes, you do not need fancy equipment to get better pictures. The fancy equipment just makes it easier. Whether you want to spend the extra money on all this stuff and spend the energy to carry the stuff around is a different question. Generally the camera you have is a lot better than the one you left at home.
There are of course, exceptions. If you want to shoot architecture, or make huge prints, you really do need a large format camera. If wildlife photography is your passion, in general you will need longer than normal lenses. If you want to work for Sports Illustrated, you probably want that huge digital SLR that shoots 15 frames per second for 5 minutes along with the bazooka sized telephoto lens.
But, these are all rare situations. A single camera with a single lens will be enough if you know how to use it. It's up to you to figure out the size and shape of this camera. My personal feeling is that these days, a good point and shoot camera with a reasonable lens is generally adequate for most purposes. If you are good with computers, the digital point and shoots are even more excellent. Whatever camera you buy, buy a good tripod before anything else.
Of course, it's generally the case that most "serious" photographers are equipment freaks. You can't really cure this affliction, you can only minimize its effects. I myself have a fancy digital SLR that I don't really need, but you'd have to pry it out of my cold dead hands. This is in addition to too many other film cameras that I never use anymore. So, do as I say, not as I do.
LensWork is a nice magazine about photography. They are a bit pretentious.
The Digital Journalist is a nice web site about the modern state of photojournalism.
photo.net/ is a good all purpose photo web site, although it's mostly about shopping and bizarre forum posts these days.
Mountain Light is where you can buy Galen Rowell books and pictures.
March 01, 2005
A few months ago, in a fit of good sense, I cancelled my satellite dish service when I realized that I was paying about $40 a month for the privilege of not actually watching any TV.
And, for the most part, it has worked out. I've read a lot of books. I've played a lot of videogames. I haven't missed it at all.
Unfortunately, Formula One season starts this weekend. This puts me in a bit of a bind.
I'm getting some pressure to hook the satellite service back up. Some of it comes from my friends, who somehow have decided that I'm the one that has to pay for satellite service so that they can come over at midnight and drink beer and watch the race. But most of it is internal. The pressure comes from a hope, completely unjustified by any actual evidence, that this is the year that things will change. This time, there will be battles for first place, rather than third. This year the championship will be decided in the last race, instead of midway through the season.
I'm Charlie Brown, and Bernie Ecclestone is Lucy, holding that football and beckoning me over. Formula One is the latent sporting event.
Last year, I correctly predicted the entire shape of the season. Everyone thought I was joking. I wasn't:
Wanna-be footballer and six-time world champion Michael Schumacher, Inc, is still the lead driver for Ferrari, and is scheduled to win the championship once again. Don't look for any surprises here. About once a month throughout the season various F1 online magazines will post articles with headlines asking "Can Anyone Beat Schumi? At the risk of spoiling the season, I can reveal that the answer to that question is "No." At times, people will propose various theories as to how and why Michael might manage to lose. Perhaps Bridgestone's tires will fail to be competetive with Michelin. Fernando Alonso will develop further and be able to challenge Schumacher in every race. A meteor will fall from the sky and annihilate the Ferrari paddock. None of these things will happen. Ferrari will dominate again, and despite what many people wish, he's not about to retire.I'm republishing this prediction, unchanged, for 2005. Herr Michael Schumacher will, once again, crush the field like a sumo wrestler stepping on a moth. The only drama at each race will be the question of whether he will deploy his "noble and magnanimous" face in the post-race press conferences, or his "snarky and condescending" one.
There are, for the third year running, significant rule changes that the naïve hope will somehow slow down the Ferrari juggernaut as it screams towards victory at 18,500 RPM. Engines must last for 2 races. New chassis regulations should reduce the amount of available aerodynamic downforce. Most significantly, tires have to last for qualifying and the race now -- the days of 23-man pit crews are gone. No tire changes during the race, except for dealing with punctures.
Understanding why the rule changes won't slow down the Ferrari Victory Parade is a simple matter of internalizing this fact: they really are that good. From the tiniest details of pit crew choreography up through the talents of the drivers, the selection of race strategies, and of course car and engine design and implementation, Ferrari's execution is, for all intents and purposes, flawless. People talk about how much money the team spends, but casually forget to mention that Toyota is spending even more cash on a team that fares much worse.
So that's my dilemma. The racing fan in me wants to see the races, because maybe something unexpected will happen. The dispassionate analyst in me knows that I will just be paying $40 a month to watch a race where the outcome is predetermined. And that feels dumb. There's no need to watch a race live if there's no drama. I might as well just be watching a highlight reel.
Hmm, now there's an interesting thought. I wonder if anyone will be disseminating the races on the Internet after the fact...