April 30, 2005
So, it turns out that there are people who are really, really enthusiastic about Mac OS X, as I discovered at the Tiger launch party in Shadyside last night.
And now, I have photos to prove it.
Thanks to Jenny Ladd for the photos!
April 29, 2005
Now that Mac OS X 10.4 ("Tiger") has been unleashed, it is only right and proper that I make available The Inscrutable Denominator of Heaven's Dashboard, ready for your Dashboard-using pleasure. It requires, of course, Mac OS X 10.4. Download, unzip, and double-click to install and run.
On the one hand, it's still the same garbage code, and the random number generator doesn't quite work right. On the other hand, I ported it in to Dashboard in just about 10 minutes, and most of that was spent dorking around with the background image. I didn't edit the code at all — it was a straight cut and paste job.
That, I think, convinces me of Dashboard's worth. It is so incredibly trivial to get something useful(*) in to Dashboard, that I have no doubt that there are going to more cool widgets than we can possibly imagine at this point.
(*) Yes, I understand that this particular widget is, in fact, not at all useful.
April 28, 2005
In the South Side of Pittsburgh, on 17th about a block and a half south of Carson Street is a small house with a green awning. Under the awning is a door and a sign that reads: DISH Osteria and Bar. From the outside, the door is just another door in another blue collar Pittsburgh neighborhood. It's a skinny street with a beat up sidewalk lined with cheap looking row houses as far as the eye can see. But, if you walk through the door, you are transported to another place entirely. The place on the other side of the door is not of Pittsburgh at all. It is DISH, and it is fabulous.
Drinks and Specials
It's about 7:30 on a Wednesday night. We usually get there earlier, and with reservations, so we're not even sure we'll be seated. We end up sitting in the bar area rather than the main dining room. This is actually a feature, since the bar is where all the interesting people are anyway. Directly behind us is a large man and his girlfriend. The man's hair is an accidental sculpture of protein and gel, and his girlfriend's seems sympathetically rumpled, like how owners always look like their pets. They are having a good time with drinks and just a little food, a couple of appetizers. They are loud, but not obnoxiously so. In fact, this is true of the whole place. There is a general atmosphere of a lot happening, but not in the normal American way where you can hear all the conversations. Instead, they float underneath the music coming from the bar. The music is an eclectic mix of genres that I don't usually listen to. But, unlike most music in restaurants and bars, it does not make me feel like I have to hop over the bar and put a blunt weapon into the CD player. It's actually enjoyable.
One conversation that we can hear are two gentleman in black who appear to be ordering food to eat at the bar, since the dining room is too full. They commiserate with the bartender, the waitstaff, the chef, and anyone else close by.
Ten minutes in, we get drink orders and the specials menu. Hand rolled pasta with a saffron sauce, shrimp, tomato, maybe zucchini; a pork "t-bone" chop, and a halibut filet, pan roasted with a saffron seafood risotto and spinach on top. The food is described with a lot of words, but none of them are stupid.
We order appetizers and main course and then settle in to watch the show. The man couple at the bar have started act one of their eventual drama, delaying their food so they can run some errands. One leaves and begins an apparently endless cell phone conversation out on the street.
In a while, we get our first round of appetizers. A basket of bread and the house special mix of olives. These are presumably the same olives that you get at Penn Mac out of those huge buckets. We take them home and they taste like brine. DISH bathes them in some kind of magic elixir with oil, vinegar and dried herbs and they are transformed into little green and black works of art. We have to physically restrain ourselves from getting sick on the olives. My wife remarks that we never remember to come and just get the olives takeout. I remind her that ten years ago she didn't like olives at all.
The guy on the cell phone returns, and his partner gets up and runs outside, muttering something about cigarettes. Later we can see both of them out in the alley smoking. Our second round shows up. I have pan-fried shrimp with olive oil, grape tomatoes and a bit of basil oil in the middle of the plate. Karen gets a panzanella salad. Greens, ciabatta, oil, vinegar, tomatoes and cucumber mixed up in a bowl. Simple food, well-prepared.
As we finish the appetizers, the bar fills with people waiting for tables. An absolutely huge party gets up and starts filing out of the main dining room. Maybe 10 or 15 people, all young, all well dressed, all beautiful. They are from a dimensional reality that Pittsburgh has little contact with, but to which DISH seems to have a secret conduit. Even as they file out, one suspects that others from the same Eurohip clan will soon appear to replace them.
I get the halibut. Karen gets the strip steak, but with the sides from the filet because she wants the mushroom risotto. Her steak is a perfect medium rare. Not uncooked and raw in the middle like I got at Ruth's Chris. Not teetering on the edge of well done and gray like I got at the Lidia's brunch. Maybe I have bad luck with steak.
The fish is a calculated risk, as is all fish in Pittsburgh. But, for once the guy in the kitchen can make me a fish which is better than what I can do at home with the stuff from Whole Foods. I can't remember the last time this has happened to me in Pittsburgh (or in the rest of the country for that matter). I have pretty much given up on cooked fish in restaurants. But this halibut restores my faith. The risotto and the vegetables are also great, although, as always, the risotto is just a little bit undercooked.
As we enjoy the food, the man-couple returns to the bar. The cell phone guy puts his phone away and starts berating the cigarette guy. He finally slams the phone on the counter, mutters about how he can fucking argue with both of them until the end of time and stalks out of the place. His friend sits stoically at the bar and then just says "bring it on." The bartender assures the cigarette guy that his cell phone guy "will be back", she "just knows it." Cigarette guy despondently asks for the food to go.
Just as I have polished off my risotto, another huge crew of the pretty people file out of the main dining room. As they leave, a new couple shows up at the bar to replace them. Then a tall blonde woman appears and chatters into her phone in fast Italian. She sits down and has a cigarette. So, fair warning to all you people who are paranoid about secondhand smoke. The bar at DISH may not be your place. But, that's fine because it means more food for me. So, by all means, for the sake of your health, stay away.
It's at this point in the meal when we always wonder why they let us in. We guess that they have to have a certain quota of normal people to maintain the dimensional stability of the portal. Otherwise the whole thing would collapse and get sucked over to San Francisco.
Our dessert arrives as the take out order is finally finished. The cigarette guy picks up his bag of food and hands over a pile of cash to the register. As he plods out of the place, the bartender tries to reassure him, but it doesn't seem to help. When he's out the door, she just sighs and mutters "unbelievable" under her breath.
Dessert is a chocolate bread pudding with raspberry sauce and some unfortunate strawberries on top. The berries are the only clear loser for the night and the only indication that we have not been dimensionally transported to some other city where there might be berries this time of year.
The coffee comes, and along with it yet another couple in the endless stream of fashionable people that appear and then disappear at a constant rate.
Both the pudding and the coffee are great. We pay the bill. We get up to leave and on our way out the door, we run into the Italian woman's friend. As you can probably guess, she too is tall, well dressed, blonde, and beautiful.
We go out the door, and we are back in Pittsburgh, on the South Side, walking up 17th street towards Carson. It's dark now and the lights are on in all the row houses, and the trash is out on the sidewalk for pickup tomorrow.
April 27, 2005
My review remains the same: "meh."
April 26, 2005
Last October I wrote about a Star Trek game for the Apple II that I remembered playing in the early 1980s. It had the somewhat disconcerting habit of spewing out page-long quotes from Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. It was so incongruous that I wasn't sure if the game actually existed, or if I was just remembering some sort of odd dream. The other week, to my surprise, someone wrote me saying: "Hey. I remember that game. In fact, I have it on a disk."
The problem is that this person's Apple II disk drive is completely broken, so he's not even sure if the disk is still readable. With luck, he'll be sending me the disk soon, and I'll try to recover the data from it and get it into a disk image form and onto the various Apple II archives on the net.
If that's the only good thing that ever comes out of Tea Leaves, I'll feel like it's enough.
So I am emboldened by this trend, and want to make more disappeared games return. So it's Stump the Game Geek time once again: pick a game that you used to play, that you can barely remember, whose name you've forgotten, and describe it in the comments below. I (or our Alert Readers) will try to identify it and tell you where to find it.
April 25, 2005
In the almost 15 years that I've been back in Pittsburgh, the food scene here has for the most part expanded and improved in ways that I would not have imagined possible. I personally would not have believed that our humble city could now be the home of a Chinese place as good as Rose Tea Cafe, an honest-to-god Taqueria (Taco Loco in the South Side), or a Moule Frites place (Point Brugge Cafe in Point Breeze) in addition to several regional Italian establishments (Piccolo Forno, La cucina Flegrea, Lidia's). It seems to me that at this point in Pittsburgh's food history, we are finally seeing a growth period in great places specializing in excellent and authentic regional food.
So my question is: Why can't I get a decent "American" style breakfast?
It doesn't take much to make a good breakfast. All you really need are four things:
1. Good eggs.
2. Good potatoes or pancakes or some similar anti-Atkins food material.
3. Good meat.
4. Good strong black coffee.
The fact that these four things are rare in a place that serves breakfast is shocking, since none of these items is particularly difficult to prepare well. For some reason, most every place you try in the Pittsburgh falls down on one or more of these axes, the most common being either the potatoes or the pancakes. Most places can make an egg over easy without killing it, even if they can't do scrambled. However, it appears that there is an art to making pancakes and home fries that is just beyond the average cook. What you want in a pancake is something that is thick and airy without being heavy. What you want in breakfast potatoes is similar to what you want in perfect fries. Crispy on the outside, light and slightly starchy on the inside. Instead, we get a parade of thin and rubbery or thin and greasy or leaden undercooked pancakes to go along with stale, or cold, or boiled and burnt, starchy potatoes.
We have searched up and down the Pittsburgh area looking for the one place that manages it to put it all together, but we have never found a winner on a consistent basis. Here is a list of places in Pittsburgh that have failed me:
- Pamela's: Greasy execrable pancakes and nothing else really going for it.
- Square Cafe: This place is a recent favorite and it gets close once in a while but ultimately, while it has some nice combinations, none of them involve potatoes and pancakes.
- De Luca's: Probably as close as you will get in town. The home fries here are not the ideal potato, and the pancakes are only average.
- Pandolfo's: I had really good pancakes here and a good egg. But the place is 45 minutes south of town, so it isn't worth it.
- That Diner in Millvale: Yuck.
- The Gatto Diner in Tarentum: Generally bad on all fronts.
- The Grand Concourse Brunch: Still great for the cold fish, nothing else good here.
- Lidia's Brunch: A recent favorite. Great potatoes. Good eggs. Overcooked my steak.
- The Rusty Nail in Bellevue: Greasy.
- Plates in Bellevue: Unremarkable.
- Coca Cafe in Lawrenceville: Scrambled eggs that were like custard. Also, completely tasteless chorizo.
If you favorite place is on this list, don't feel bad. Mine is too. If you favorite place is not on this list, give me the address.
April 24, 2005
Spread the meme!
April 22, 2005
More musings on unanswerable questions that aren't actually significant enough to warrant their own long article:
- Am I the only person who thinks that aspirin, chewed, tastes kinda good? I want aspirin-flavored soda.
- Who are all these people that are still buying $2500 gaming PC rigs, and what is wrong with them?
- What happened to my copy of the Tank Girl soundtrack, along with maybe 5% of all the CDs I've ever owned? Is there some sort of collective of shame I can join where I can reacquire mp3s of songs I paid for, but lost?
- Let me get this straight: I can get fresh fish from halfway around the world, or any fruit that is totally out of season, in my local supermarket. But to get heavy cream without stabilizers and garbage in it, I have to drive for half an hour?
- Was the real reason that Germany invaded Belgium that they were pissed off that the Belgians made better beer?
- Why does commercial radio suck so bad (even compared to commercial TV)?
- Why is it that 15 years later, the soundcards/sound generators that come with most computers sound terrible compared to the long-gone Gravis Ultrasound?
- Why is Aimee Mann the only one who knows that Disneyland's about to close? For the love of God, what does that song mean?
Trivial as these questions are, they are the sorts of things that keep me awake at night.
April 21, 2005
I never played any of the Resident Evil games before Resident Evil 4. From what I can gather, they were slow-paced with a weird camera system that made combat nearly impossible and a fairly bizarre story centered around an evil virus and zombies. The hype around RE4 was that it was different. Most of the rather enthusiastic press waxes lyrical about the new graphics engine and camera, the new combat system, and the interactive cutscenes. Every review also seems to make a point to claim that the game has no zombies. After playing through most of the game, I can agree with some of this, but anyone who thinks there are no zombies in this game must be partially undead in the brain.
Zombies, Lots of Zombies
Let's get one thing straight. This game is full of zombies. They may look like "villagers", or wear funny hats, or babble in Spanish. Most of all, they may not actually be dead yet, but they are still zombies. Strictly speaking, the story revolves around some sort of evil that has turned a huge number of otherwise normal people into mindless automatons of death. But don't let this fool you. They are still zombies. They shuffle slowly, they surround you, they grab you and wack you with weapons and most of all, when you shoot them in the head they explode in a rain of guts and blood and gore while they shuffle off to their ultimate fate. Then they fall over and turn into money.
You Shoot, Slowly
Here is how the game plays. You walk slowly into an area. You can only walk slowly, unless you hit the B key to move faster. You have to wonder about a game that dedicates an entire button for nothing but "move faster". Haven't they ever heard of an analog stick? You know, an input device that provides a smoothly varying set of outputs over a large range, which you could interpret as, I don't know, how fast I want to move. On the up side, the third person camera is fairly well done. It only gets in the way when you try to see around corners. The rest of the time it sits behind your shoulder, letting you peer into the creepy environments while still allowing scary creatures to surprise you from behind.
Anyway, you show up in an area, and some number of zombie bad guys appear. They shuffle slowly towards you. You stand in one place and slowly aim your gun. I gather that the aiming system is a lot better than the previous games. But it is still awkward, and I wish you could at least strafe. If the zombies were moving faster, or actually had any intelligence whatsoever, you'd be dead while you aim. Luckily, the game spares you by having most of the enemies move very methodically in your direction, allowing you to peg them repeatedly with the shotgun until they die. This process is a lot of fun, especially when you make heads explode in interesting patterns.
The game avoids becoming overly repetitive by changing up the nature of the combat once in a while. There are a few different kinds of scary beasts that chase you faster than the standard zombies. There are a few snipe and dodge missions, a couple of shoot things while rolling on rails sequences, and some stupid escort missions where you have to lead a girl around while she screams a lot. The hardest sequences in the game involve killing a lot of zombies while keeping the girl alive at the same time.
The game also does a great job of balancing fun and challenge. You find ammo and health packs when you need them, and there is this creepy merchant creature who follows you around the game and sells you new weapons and weapon upgrades. While the zombie hordes are always menacing, they are hardly ever completely overwhelming. This means that you get to spend most of your time blowing up zombie heads rather than worrying about resources, or replaying levels because you are dead. This means you spend most of your time having fun.
In summary, the meat of the game is the combat, and while it is awkward and sort of stupid, the combat is good enough to keep you coming back for more. But, this doesn't mean that the game doesn't do some stupid things.
A Lack of Puzzling Puzzles
Once in a while you have to solve a puzzle. There are basically two kinds of puzzles in the game: easy and stupid. The easy puzzles are of the form "find the key, unlock the door", or "turn a couple of knobs, unlock the door". The only trouble here is finding the right key or realizing which knobs are turnable. The stupid puzzles are annoying combinatorial problems that are not so much hard as just busywork. There is even a "move the 8 tiles around the 9 spaces" puzzle. Luckily, I came to the game late so all of the walkthroughs have the stupid combinations in them already.
Interactive Cut Scenes
One of the more interesting gameplay conceits in RE4 is the combination of cut scenes and action sequences. You'll come into an area, and a cut scene will start playing and suddenly the game will tell you that you have to mash the A button furiously or be crushed by a rolling boulder. For the most part, this mechanic provides a way to make you play the same cut scene over and over and over again until you mash the buttons in just the right order. As such, it is stupid and evil. There are a few places in the game where this mechanic is used well to provide a general sense of creepiness. But, I think Capcom were a little too proud of themselves, and the scheme is overused, especially in the boss fights.
You are not the Boss of Me
In between the fights, and the puzzles and the cut scenes that kill you are, of course, the bosses. Generally, the bosses follow the familiar pattern: the boss is big, the boss has a pattern of attacks, the boss has a single fatal weakness which you must read the walkthrough to discover and exploit. So, the boss fights go like this: run, run, dodge, run, dodge, shoot, shoot, die, die, get bored, read the walkthrough, run, dodge, shoot, kill the boss.
Some of the boss fights borrow the "mash this button combination or be destroyed" mechanic from the cut scenes. This can be annoying, since it's hard to do the button mashing if you are already holding down the right trigger and B to use your weapon and the buttons you have to mash involve either the B button or the triggers (which they always do). This is one of the ways that the boss fights ensure that you must repeat them at least 3 times, thus padding out the length of the game.
Even with all these complaints, there is at least one pretty original idea for a boss early in the game. And, there are a couple of boss creatures later in the game who are fun to kill with a single shot.
But ultimately these are still bosses, and bosses are stupid. So mark one more negative point.
Stupid Inventory System
The game has an annoying inventory system that allows you to carry a ludicrous amount of stuff, but not everything you find or buy. So you get to waste a lot of time shuffling things around in your box, and you get to waste money buying bigger boxes once in a while. Happily, this is only a minor annoyance, but you have to wonder why they bothered.
Back to the Good Stuff
While I have spent a lot of time whining about the stupid things in the game, I have to say that overall RE4 is excellent in spite of itself. In addition to the zombie killing, it does a lot of other things right. The environments have a great sense of scale, small or large, and at times they manage to generate an atmosphere of general creepiness and dread. This is pretty impressive considering that the game is well balanced enough that you are usually not in great danger of dying quickly (except for certain boss-like meanies). The rendering is stunning; as good as anything on the Xbox. There are even some pretty awesome lighting, fire and water effects. The game is courteous enough to attach a virtual flashlight to the back of your head so you can see while running around in the dark. The light isn't really there, but a certain glow does follow you around so you can see things. This is a nice touch. Finally, even with all the eye candy, load times are fast.
Overall, I have found RE4 to be a game that is superbly balanced, superbly produced, and a lot of fun. The fun that it provides more than makes up for the things it does wrong. If you have a GameCube, go buy it now. The upcoming PS2 version will probably play just as well, but it will look like ass.
April 20, 2005
A real conversation I had at the grocery store yesterday:
Me: "Hi. Do you have any heavy cream?"And that was when I crumpled to the floor and wept like a jilted cheerleader. I know it was just one employee, but it's still depressing.
Employee: "Heavy cream? What's that?"
April 19, 2005
As I mentioned the other day, I recently picked up Jade Empire . I've played it throughout the weekend and have some comments.
On closer examination, the game improves on KOTOR in some ways but also (unsurprisingly) fails in some of the same places. Let's take a look.
As regular readers may remember, I wagered psu a case of beer that Jade Empire would use the same D20 engine, internally, as did KOTOR. I am lucky that psu doesn't actually drink beer, because I am willing to concede that I was wrong.
There's a lot here that feels like D20. There are still "stats" representing your overall power level, but they are far enough removed from D20 that they were clearly developed in-house. The combat system is completely new. Co-author psu referred to it as "Soul Calibur-like" but it's not as polished as that. Really, what you have here is a game that plays like an RPG but then, every so often, makes you play a round of Street Fighter.
Your character's stats (of course) determine his or her studliness in combat, as measured in three ways. Body feeds directly into the amount of damage you can take before keeling over and dying. Spirit determines the amount of chi you have. Chi can be used to heal yourself, to power magical spells, or to enhance physical attacks. Mind determines the amount of "focus" you have. Focus is used for attacks with weapons and also allows you to enter "focus mode" which slows the world down to a crawl, a la The Matrix (or as in the game Max Payne).
Instead of feats or skills, your character learns different fighting techniques over time and can power them up in different ways. There are bare-handed martial-arts techniques (effective against most enemies, including the undead), weapon techniques, magical techniques, and "support" techniques which don't deal direct damage, but instead cause special effects (such as slowing the enemy down, or draining their chi). Different techniques are more effective against different enemies, for different reasons. Learning to switch between them in the middle of combat is the key to success.
One way in which Knights of the Old Republic improved upon its Dungeons and Dragons predecessors was its unashamed elimination of drudgery. Inventory management? Gone! Carry as much as you like. Stat management? Click this magic button and the game will manage it for you. Save points? Surely you jest. Save every 30 seconds, if you like! (And I do).
Jade Empire brutally cuts the nonessential aspects of play even closer to the bone. Inventory management is reduced by getting rid of nearly every type of carryable item except weapons and "essence gems." You have character statistics, but the rock-scissors-paper nature of combat will require you to abandon subtle strategy and enhance them all at roughly the same rate. Your companions presumably have inventories and statistics as well, but you don't get to see them: the game manages them for you.
There's less drudgery. There's more fun, watching R get bigger. All of this is good.
What I'm enjoying the most is the plot. It has its cliché elements, but not to the level of being offensive. It follows the by-now-nearly-an-immutable-law-of-nature Bioware pattern: constrained sandbox beginning, wide-open "second chapter," and a more tightly scripted endgame portion. It turns out that your character — and I bet you didn't see this coming! — has a Mysterious Origin and a Very Important Destiny to fulfill.
You also get to decide whether you want to be good or evil. Oh, excuse me, I mean, if you want to "follow the Way of the Open Palm" or "be a disciple of the Way of the Closed Fist." This is one of only two areas in which the game disappoints. I understand the desire to provide an incentive to replay the game, but the implementation is clumsy; it shows me that the game designers were students of the Way of the Ham Fist. To be clear, I'm not complaining that the game offers the player the choice of being an insufferable puritan or a vile blackguard, I just wish they hadn't tried to formalize its effect on gameplay. It feels like they just wanted to reuse as much of the KOTOR design as possible, and in this one area I think that was a mistake.
The other (small) problem with Jade Empire is that, like its predecessor, it has terrible, terrible puzzles. As long as the game stays in its "find this person, and kick his ass" mode, it's fine. Occasionally, though, it tries to give you a puzzle to solve, and the puzzles are insultingly bad and trivial. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: Jade Empire is a mass-market game, and they are afraid that if they make the puzzles
interesting "too hard" they will alienate a large number of players. This is a dumb attitude. Providing alternative routes around tough puzzles is one thing, but dumbing them down is just hurtful to everyone involved. If you really think that puzzles are going to ruin the game for your players, then there's an obvious solution: don't include any. Throwing in a few lame clunkers that can be solved through brute force just wastes everyone's time.
Since most of the puzzles are on optional quests anyway, this doesn't ruin what is an otherwise enjoyable game. It just tarnishes it a little.
Those complaints aside, I do want to reiterate that I'm having fun playing the game. I think you shouldn't believe the hype being heaped upon the game by, well, just about everyone. This is not a perfect game, by any stretch of the imagination, and the 9.8, 9.9 ratings being showered upon it by the gaming press simply demonstrate how meaningless such numbers are. Jade Empire is not a perfect game, nor an innovative game, nor a future classic. What it is, however, is a superbly balanced game. It is a game that most of its purchasers will play through to completion, and will provide a satisfying experience. I'm not trying to damn it with faint praise. Given how terrible most games (and specifically most RPGs) are, this is quite an accomplishment.
The cost of all this superb balance is that the game lacks daring. In places where the game's designers had opportunities to make something strong and sharp (such as the aforementioned puzzles), they instead intentionally made something soft and dull. I understand the tradeoff. Had I been producing the game, I might have made the same choice. But I can still feel some regret for the shadow the nonexistent, sharper game casts over the one I actually own.
If you have an Xbox, you should buy Jade Empire.
If you'd like a personalized Jade Empire name, be sure to visit The Inscrutable Denominator of Heavenly Glory, as well.
April 18, 2005
The other day, I stopped using Firefox for gmail. Part of the reason is that Firefox under MacOS feels slightly wrong and renders funny because it is still using older Carbon interfaces. But, the real reason I stopped was because the text widgets don't have Emacs key bindings the way normal MacOS text widgets do. What I find sad about this is not that Firefox is lacking this feature, but that my nervous system is so crippled that even 20 years down the line, I can't purge the need for this stupid text editing user interface from the tips of my fingers. My conclusion is that Emacs makes you retarded.
Of course, it's not really Emacs that is at fault here. The real problem has to do with the ability of the human nervous system to quickly adapt to one idiosyncratic way of working (ctrl-a for go to beginnging of line? Who thought that made sense) and then not be able to flush out the adaptation when it has clearly become an impediment to further productivity. During all these years, I would have gladly given up the Emacs in favor of any number of other tools, but my psyche used various techniques to make this impossible.
A False Sense of Superiority
This kept me going for at least a good decade. The notion that I would use something else if only there were something better. Many better things were always staring me in the face, but I was always able to rationalize them away. "Well, that tool might have decent font coloring, but it won't do adaptive USENET news thread classification." You know how it goes.
This is the syndrome that causes you to give up on every new tool after five minutes because you cannot immediately adapt to it. You forget that it probably took months of acclimation to get really good with the original tool. But, no matter. You try to use a new, and probably better, tool for a few minutes and the fifth time ctrl-a does not do the right thing, you throw it out the window.
One Last Legacy
I still use Emacs day to day, but not for coding. I actually use it to connect to an archaic chat system that many of my online "friends" also use. My attachment to this legacy application is almost as sad as my attachment to ctrl-a. But what can you do.
Ultimately, I think in a few more years, I'll have managed to completely wean my subconcious from the need to hit ctrl-a all the time. Happily, or maybe not so happily, MacOS has managed to slow this process down somewhat because the Cocoa frameworks date back to NeXTStep, which was devleoped by a bunch of recovering Emacs addicts, and so all of the text editing widgets (and some modern applications, like Keynote and Pages) provide all of the core key bindings, including the beloved ctrl-a. The irony that brings the Mac user interface and Emacs together is pretty thick.
So, yes, I will remain mentally crippled, but at least I'll be able to edit text on my Mac.
April 15, 2005
They nearly got me this time, with the pre-ordering thing.
Sometime around January, Bioware started sending me email (I registered with them, because I love them as a company and don't mind them marketing to me) about Jade Empire. They told me how that there would be a "Limited Edition," and somehow managed to imply, without actually saying, that if I wanted the Limited Edition, I would need to pre-order through them.
I came within a few minutes of doing it before my higher snark-functions regained full potency. "That's stupid," I told myself. "There has never been a videogame in the history of the universe where pre-ordering has served any purpose but to allow a vendor to draw interest on your money instead of you. Abide. The day the game is released, you'll be able to walk into any Wal-Mart or Target and buy it with no difficulty."
Of course, the snarky-me was correct. Yesterday I walked to The Exchange and bought it with no problems.
My transaction was very simple. It went something like this:
My friend Nat forgot the Rule and went to the evil Electronics Boutique up the block. He told me about what buying the game was like. My (poetically licensed) vision of his transaction looks like this:
ME: "Hi, do you have the Jade Empire Limited Edition?"
THEM: "Yeah. $50, please."
THEM: "Have a nice day."
NAT: "Hi, do you have the Jade Empire Limited Edition?"
EB: "Did you pre-order it?"
EB: "You really should have pre-ordered it."
EB: "But yeah, we have it, here it is."
NAT: "Thanks. Here's my money."
EB: "You're really going to like it. Would you like a strategy guide with that?"
NAT: "No, thanks. Please take my money now."
EB: "The strategy guide rocks. It will really help you get past the plot twist."
NAT: "I don't want it."
EB: "It's wicked! You're walking along with your ally, when all of a sudden it turns out that Lan Di, the man who assassinated your father, is actually..."
NAT: "SHUT UP RIGHT NOW AND TAKE MY MONEY BEFORE I KILL YOU."
EB: "OK, OK, jeez, some people. Would you like a CD cleaning kit with that?"
NAT: [Dies of pulmonary edema]
The upshot of all this is that we will have a Jade Empire review sometime soon, and Electronics Boutique Delenda Est.
April 14, 2005
As long as I'm talking about rogue-like games, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Linley's Dungeon Crawl. More baroque than rogue, but not quite so overburdened as (or, on the other hand, as polished as) Nethack, it's worth a look.
Death comes quickly in Crawl; at any given point, you are only two or three wrong moves away from an ignominious end. While on the one hand this sounds tiresome, it is actually a refreshing break from games like Angband, where the entire first 12 hours of the game consist of a walk in the park, and then the difficulty suddenly ramps up from "trivial" to "impossible" in the space of a few minutes. In Crawl, any time you see more than one enemy on the screen at once, you have to give serious consideration to running away as a viable strategy.
The game tries, with some success, to implement a Morrowind-like "gain proficiency in the skills you actually use" system, where practicing skills is more important, in an absolute sense, than what "level" you are. This creates a feeling of specialization in the characters that is somewhat lacking in games such as Angband and Nethack, where really the end goal is to acquire equipment that makes your character the all-singing all-dancing God of War. In Crawl, your character's skills matter much more than what he is carrying. This is exciting.
The only real downside to the game's relative immaturity is a crushing lack of in-game documentation (an aspect of gameplay in which Nethack is the gold standard). There's not a lot of "flavor" text here. It is a roguelike stripped down to essentials.
But sometimes the essentials are worth being stripped down to. People talk about the fact that Nethack literally has the kitchen sink in it as a virtue, but I think it's a vice. It represents, to me, a loss of direction, a nonsequitur if you will, like a fart joke in a Jane Austen novel. The entire existence of the Sokoban levels in Nethack are an example of something that would have been a good April Fool's joke — once — but now are regrettably baked in to the balance of the game, to the game's detriment.
Development on Crawl seems to have slowed down in the past few years. This is a shame. If there's anyone out there looking for a project to contribute to, I think you could do a lot worse than to contribute to this one.
In many ways, Crawl is Nethack without all the stupid junk in it. Anyone who loves the genre should give it a close examination.
The Dungeon Crawl website is here. There are binaries available for Windows and MacOS, and the game can be easily compiled on Linux or BSD. The wikipedia entry on Crawl has a nice description of some of the more esoteric aspects of the game, including its interesting skill and magic systems.
April 13, 2005
In 1986, I nearly failed out of college because I spent so much time playing urogue.
That's not the game's fault, of course. No doubt if it wasn't urogue it would have been some other addictive little distraction that I found more interesting than my classes. But nonetheless, urogue ("UltraRogue v 1.03"), Herb Chong's little creation, was my bête noir, and so it has always maintained a barren little corner in my heart.
If you haven't played it yourself, that's not surprising. In the decades-long legal battles over who owned Unix, all of the rogue games became part of the collateral damage. There were a number of versions of the game, all descended from the original AT&T rogue, with varying names: UltraRogue. Advanced Rogue. SuperRogue. XRogue. You can think of them all as simply being "rogue, with More Stuff." Their legal status was uncertain. Even the people who owned them didn't really know whether distribution of them was OK.
Rogue, for those of you not familiar with it, is a text-based non-real-time role playing game. Your avatar on screen is a little at-sign, "@", who wanders around a crudely-drawn dungeon whacking monsters, represented by letters, on the head. Along the way your avatar will find magic scrolls, strange potions, magic rings, and the like. Your ultimate goal is to find that fabled artifact, the Amulet of Yendor.
UltraRogue (and friends) add More Stuff to this, such as character classes, so you can be a magic-user, or priest, or fighter. They add a much larger group of monsters, including greater gods and demons who are greedy for mithril and might summon you at a moment's notice. They add stores, where you can buy equipment. They add more and different types of equipment, and more artifacts in addition to the Amulet.
Compared to today's rogue-like games (Nethack, Angband, Diablo) the dungeons are simple; every level may have at most 9 rooms. Picture a tic-tac-toe board. Every section of the board might have a room (or, possibly, a dead end). All rooms are connected, although sometimes doors are hidden. This makes progressing through the game mindless in an extremely satisfying way.
The difficulty curve goes from insanely easy to insanely hard somewhere around level 20 of the dungeon. The deepest I have ever made it is to around level 50, collecting 4 artifacts along the way. It doesn't particularly bother me that I can't "win". Winning isn't the point of playing. It's like knitting. You play it just because.
The Source Code
The code for all of the Rogue Plus More Stuff games was nearly identical. Apart from subtle feature set differences, the main way you could tell you were looking at one rather than another was by who had ripped off and thrown away the AT&T TRADE SECRET copyright notice and replaced it with their own names.
Nonetheless, in the 80's I somehow ended up with the source code for both urogue 1.03 and Advanced Rogue 5.8. In the mid-90's, I ported both of them to then-current versions of Linux and BSD Unix, mostly so that I could play them.
Porting them is somewhat painful. All of the function signatures were (of course) K&R style, rather than ANSI C. They used ancient and long-obsolete forms of varargs macros, and deprecated interfaces to curses, the screen drawing package.
Perhaps the most evil portions of the code centered around save and restore. UltraRogue didn't really have data "structures" per se. They were more "data vague suggestions". Everything was a global. When you wanted to save the game, the program found the top of the data segment (using sbrk(0)) and wrote the entire data segment into a file.
Then when you restored later, the program read the file into memory and reset the data segment pointer to point to the blob of garbage you had just read in, using brk().
It is, in short, a minor miracle that save and restore ever worked at all, even at the time they were written.
I rewrote the save and restore code and got it working. I replaced the ridiculous memory management tricks with straightforward code that serialized all the interesting things in memory onto disk. Then at restore time, you just them back in in an orderly fashion. But it was still fragile, because I got bored about halfway through serializing every one of the hundreds of globals (per app), and decided to think of a better way to do it. What I eventually settled on — but never got around to implementing, because I had a day job — was that with about a day and a perl script, I could probably move all of those globals on to the heap. Once you have things on the heap, the technique of just dumping everything to a file and reading it back in again as a single lump becomes more reasonable.
On a whim, I decided to write to Herb Chong, putative author of urogue, to see if he'd let me release my patches to the 'net. Surely, I shouldn't be the only person to enjoy this bounty? Could I release the source to keep these relics alive?
Herb's reply, summarized, was: "No."
So that was that. In the end, It wasn't my code to give away, and while I felt no guilt about keeping copies for personal use, I wasn't about to stomp on someone else's copyright. Besides, I think it would be easier to reimplement the games from scratch than to completely salvage them.
I do still take them out and play them every so often, though.
And now, you can play them too. It appears that the Roguelike Restoration Project has succeeded where I have failed, in that they've manged to get clearance to distribute the source code. They've also done a lot of the same cleanup that I did years ago. There's still a lot of work left for them to do (particularly in save/restore), but I'm planning on offering them my changes. We'll see how it goes.
They've made a number of changes to the urogue interface that I don't like. But I suspect that most of my irritation with the UI comes from the fact that it's not exactly like I remember, which presumably won't matter to anyone other than me. Their version of Advanced Rogue is actually much closer to my Platonic ideal of urogue than is their version of urogue.
Try them all, and see which ones you like. And if you're not into knitting, you could always try letting the Rog-o-matic play for you. The Dungeons of Doom await you.
April 12, 2005
I flew to California yesterday for some work meetings. I found this flight to be an interesting platform on which to ponder various aspects in our social makeup.
The Security Line
The security line is a funny place for me. Not really funny as much as hateful. Today in the security line, I noticed that one of the screens was playing a little animation about how to move through the line quickly, and about how The Government (e.g. the D.H.S.) was there to take care of you and make you safe. This made me think about two things:
1. How the people who came up with this scheme to make me wait in a 15-mile-long line, and then making me unpack and take my shoes off at the end of the line, are always talking about how they are for less government.
2. How utterly amateurish the production values were on the presentation.
I mean, these days I bet a third grader with Powerpoint or Keynote could have done something more compelling. Just who do we pay to make these public service announcements anyway?
Also, those "be sure to turn in people who seem to be acting strangely" signs were kinda creepy.
The Boarding Dance
While boarding the plane, I used to spend all my time wonder what, exactly, the tall, tanned, red-headed woman had packed into the footlocker that she was trying to heave up into the overhead. These days, I spend my time wondering what exactly the tall, tanned, red-headed chick is thumbing into her Blackberry that is so world-endingly important that she can't wait until she has a proper laptop on which to write the message. It seems to me that if there were a modern version of a slaver's yoke, it would be the Blackberry.
The In-Flight Movie
The in-flight movie has changed a lot too. Instead of one tiny screen at the end of the cabin that you can't really see, you get a dozen even tinier screens that are even harder to see. In addtion, at least half the people on the plane have laptops and/or portable DVD players and have brought their own movies and collections of TV shows.
It seems to me that the iPod, the GBA, and the laptop with bittorent have made the in flight movie completely obsolete.
Landing used to be quiet. The plane would land, we would get the announcement that we landed, and then the plane would peacefully roll towards the gate as everyone stared out the window and anticipated hauling their stuff down from the overhead. Today when we land, the wierd noises start. Soon, it sounds like I'm playing a never before released special level of The Legend of Zelda: The Frequent Flyer. What's going on? It's all the phones booting up.
Truly we are a nation of gadget dorks.
Entering the car rental place, there is a formation of business people spaced perfectly across the floor as if laid out on a parallelogramic grid. They are all in identical clothes with identically sized little rolling bags hanging off of their left sides, and laptop cases hanging off their right sides. They move forward out of the elevator and towards the pickup parking lot, almost in lock step. It's an amazing example of group synchronicity. I look forward, I look back, and I realize I'm in the crowd, with my travel clothes and my little rolling bag.
April 11, 2005
No, I haven't forgotten -- the amari roundup is just taking a little longer to write up than I expected. Look for it in the next week or so.
April 08, 2005
It's Friday and we're all tired here, so instead of the usual thoughtful and opinion filled piece of writing, I will just present a list of questions so vexing, so complicated, confusing or just plain stupid that I've never been able write a whole article about them.
1. Why can't I aim my gun and walk at the same time?
2. Why do people insist on eating rice, with chopsticks, off plates?
3. Why did 2-d isometric games die?
4. Just what is it about Elmo, anyway?
5. Why does almost every game using a third person camera have camera problems? Why don't they all just use the scheme from the 2 or 3 that don't suck?
6. When did they start packaging both hot dogs and the buns in groups of eight?
7. Why do people keep developing dorky scripting languages? Don't they know that even if they made the world's most beautiful creation it really just doesn't matter anymore?
8. Why do the plants turn into money when I hit them with my sword?
9. Why do takeout food places make me order once, and then repeat the order again at the register?
10. Why can't I buy winter clothes in February? Why do I have to buy all my winter clothes in August?
April 07, 2005
It has been a big couple of weeks for new games, so here are some short impressions of the new stuff flowing through the house.
Knights of the Old Republic: Sith Lords
Picked this up used at not quite full price. The best and worst thing you can say about this game is that it is more of the same light saber wielding force power throwing Jedi ass kicking. As before, the game starts out pretty slowly, and as before you will run through a series of mostly linear dungeons, er, planets where you get missions, kill stuff and generally engage in a lot of dialog and combat.
I've done the first two areas and then ran into a battle that kicked me hard, so I got distracted with other things. But, I fully plan to get back to this since it is my favorite RPG combat engine of all time. Also, games with save anywhere must be appreciated and savored.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
Another game in this excellent series that offers more of the same. Gameplay, graphics, camera control and general balance have all been improved over the earlier games. But it all seems a bit easier. The new save anywhere feature makes the levels 10,000,000 times less tedious than in Pandora Tomorrow. You can spend just as much time playing the game, but it doesn't feel like suffering. It's super fun to experiment and play around with different ways to beat up the poor robot guards.
The co-op mode is a bit sluggish when the action is heavy, but is astoundingly well done otherwise right down to the fact that you can save the co-op game anywhere you want.
I haven't tried the multiplayer yet. I sucked at it last time. I assume I will suck this time as well.
Resident Evil 4
I got this "for free" at the Exchange, and it was worth every single game that I never play that I traded for it. Compared to Halo, or even Splinter Cell the combat system is sluggish, awkward, and generally sucky. Normally, I would throw this game away because it does not allow me to walk and aim my gun at the same time. But, RE4 saves itself by serving up an endless stream of slow zombies (oh sorry, "villagers") for me to mow down with my shotgun. The gruesome headshot animations alone are worth the price of admission. The graphics in the game look great, and the overall atmosphere is almost actually creepy. While the combat system does blow, your enemies are so slow that it is good enough to get the job done. So, my only real complaints so far are:
1. Stupid savepoints.
2. A sidegame early on that nets you a free weapon that turns out to completely suck.
3. One of those hateful inventory systems where you get to carry a sniper rifle in a briefcase but to make the game "more realistic" or "strategically deeper" you can't just carry everything you see. I've never understood why games do this (this means YOU, Deus Ex: Invisible War).
None of these things has detracted significantly from the fun of blowing up zombie heads.
April 06, 2005
One sunny day, a light-hearted fool strolled along a hilly path, whistling a merry tune. A long wooden pole was slung over his shoulder and attached to it was a cloth bundle which carried his life's possessions.
Fool's Errand -- like all of Johnson's computer games -- is a collection of simple and not so simple puzzles connected by a story. As you solve the puzzles, more of the story opens up to you. Once all the puzzles are solved, you discover that there is a much larger puzzle waiting for you, and the clues to solving it are in the story that you've been reading.
This isn't just a game. It's heroin. And so it is with pleasure that I announce that the first winner of the Tea Leaves "Playable Classic" designation is The Fool's Errand.
There are actually (at least) 3 Cliff Johnson games that are worth trying. They have varying levels of challenge and interest. Fool's Errand has a gamut of puzzles ranging from trivial to extremely hard, and the final puzzle is great. The story is incoherent and disjointed, but it still somehow feels right. There's a reason the story is incoherent and disjointed, one that won't become apparent until the endgame. And given the metaphorical, archetype-resonating nature of the Tarot, which underlies the game thematically, its somewhat playful and wandering nature fits.
Someday, hundreds of years from now, there will be a sect of monks in orange robes who spend their days performing simple chores, fasting, and meditating for hours upon hours on the deeper layers of meaning in The Fool's Errand. You'll understand why when you play.
Puzzle Gallery: At the Carnival is, on the whole, a weaker game. The puzzles are easier, the plot nonexistent, and the humor in it is a bit sophomoric (Johnson uses the theme, At the Carnival, as an excuse to vent some of his bitterness about his own stint working at various amusement parks. It doesn't really gel.) One interesting attribute of Puzzle Gallery is that all of the various games are open from the beginning — you can jump around and solve whichever ones interest you. This puts me in a bit of a bind. This is the sort of setup that I would normally claim to like. I'd write long, snotty articles talking about how stubborn game designers insist on giving us boring, linear gameplay, and why can't they just let us choose how to manage our own happiness? But the truth is that without the choke points that are present in the other two games, it feels rudderless. The constraints in the other games, where you have to solve some puzzles to proceed, lead to more of a sense of accomplishment. Of course, the flip side of that is that it can be frustrating when you hit a puzzle you just can't solve. I'm not sure what the correct solution to that problem is, philosophically. Perhaps there is no perfect solution.
3 in Three is the strongest of the games. It has high production values (most of the story is told through semi-animated cutscenes), is well-written, and the puzzles range from low difficulty to fiendish. 3 in Three tells the story of a little numeral 3 that is dislodged from its cozy spreadsheet home due to an errant power surge. The 3 must travel through all levels of the system, fixing problems as she goes. Everything about 3 in Three is great. If there had been a Windows version, I probably would have declared this to be the Playable Classic, rather than The Fool's Errand. The endgame, in particular, is a logic puzzle in the style of Everett Kaser's deduction games, and is tons of fun. If your machine can play 3 in Three, I recommend it before the other two, unless you have some sort of creepy psychosexual fascination with the Tarot, in which case Fool's Errand will give you tinfoil-hat material for years to come.
There are many different types of puzzles in The Fool's Errand, and there's a limit to how deeply I can describe them without spoiling them. But some discussion is possible. The most common type of puzzle — or at least, it feels as if it is — is the simple jigsaw puzzle. These are sometimes made a little tricky by the subtlety of the images overlaid on them, but by and large they are straightforward. After a while, you almost look forward to them as a break from the other, more frustrating puzzles. Similarly, there are word search puzzles, exactly like those from Games magazine that you did in the back seat of your parents' wood-paneled station wagon when you were a kid. Apart from those, most of the puzzles require more thought. There are several mazes with special rules that aren't obvious until you start trying to solve them. Many of the puzzles are word-based, such as crosswords (usually cryptic). There are several fun ciphertexts presented, and a number of what I think of as "machine" puzzles, where you have a bunch of buttons that you can press which cause transformations to occur to some word or picture, and you need to figure out the rules well enough that you can reach a sensible answer. And, of course, there's Thoth, a fun little two-player card game. Hmmm. I wonder how much work a standalone Thoth program would be.
There are also 2 puzzles in the game that depend on idiosyncracies of the original MacOS's user interface, subverting the player's expectations. These were playful and clever in 1988, but now they're just irritating. You'll know them when you hit them. If there was any one thing that nearly made me decide this game wasn't a Playable Classic, this was it. But given that these puzzles only represent perhaps 1.5% of the game, and given that they are actually still solvable today, I decided to view this as a wart rather than a tumor.
The puzzles in 3 in Three are more consistently clever, tending to focus more on English, numerical permutations, and machines. There are fewer pure crosswords and no word searches. If 3 in Three has a vice, it's that there is basically one puzzle too many of each type (the narrative obliquely recognizes this, too. Upon encountering the Nth "mesh" puzzle, basically a sort of 2 dimensional Rubik's cube, the 3 points her bitmap straight at the player and says "Ask me if I care." A risky question, that.) The first time I played 3 in Three, I found the meshes to be practically unsolvable, but when I came back to it after a few years their solution was obvious. Nowadays, it's the "manipulate the letters on a treadmill" puzzles that cause me angst. The best puzzles in the game, for my money, are those that approximate the deductive psychosis that subsists on all levels of the best of Everett Kaser's games. But you'll find your own favorite when you try it.
How To Get Them
The Fool's Errand is available for both Windows and Macintosh, freely and legally, at Johnson's web site. The other two games I mentioned are there as well. The Mac version of The Fool's Errand runs under OS X 10.3 (Panther) in the Classic environment (you'll need to set your monitor to 256 colors from the Classic control panel), and I've tested the Windows version on Win2k. The Windows version is a bit uglier, graphically.
If you have a Mac, I'd really recommend you try 3 in Three. There's no way to play that one on Windows without an emulator, unfortunately (but if you are willing to emulate, Basilisk II works well).
If You Like These...
freeware and available on the web. Johnson's games are perhaps a bit easier for the new player to understand. Plotkin's puzzles are, on the whole, not only more challenging, but also a bit more refreshing. You will not have faced puzzles quite like these before, even if you've played the Johnson games. Most people I've talked to get stuck at some point in System's Twilight. But it's a game that's worth getting stuck on. System's Twilight is Mac (Classic mode) only, but works in emulation on Windows under Basilisk II.
Cliff Johnson himself is in the process of developing a sequel to Fool's Errand, tentatively titled A Fool and His Money. Perhaps ignoring the warning of its name, I have violated my usual "I don't pre-order games" policy and pre-ordered this one. There's just no question in my mind that it will be great. (No pressure, Cliff. No pressure.)
Collated for your convenience are some of the links from this article:
- Cliff Johnson's web site, where you can
download his games.
- System's Twilight is also available for download. Incidentally, the first person to ever actually pay for the game, back when it was shareware has a great weblog.
- If you like the puzzles in Fool's Errand, you'll probably like any of Everett Kaser's games, also.
April 05, 2005
I've been on my bike for the first time this year. I generally ride when DST starts and stop when DST stops. While gasping for breath on the first hill of the year, I got to thinking about why I like cycling when it's clear that I am a lazy bastard. The reason for this is simple. Of all the ways you can hurt yourself in the name of fitness outside of team sports, cycling is by far the best for the lazy. This is because the point is to cover distance quickly, under your own power, while doing as litle work as possible.
Here are some tips on how to be lazy on a bike:
Buy a Road Bike
Mountain bikes are heavy and slow. They make you work too hard for any given distance. Often you have to put the mountain bike in a car to get it somewhere where it can be useful. This is too much work. I like to ride out my front door and back to my front door. My front door has a little ramp on it so I don't have to get off my bike before opening the door. I like that. You should do this for your front door. Carrying the bike into the house is a lot of work.
So, ride road bikes. The only thing mountain bikes have going for them is that the cheaper ones are cheaper than even the cheapest road bikes.
Get a Bike That Fits
The bike industry likes to convince you that bike fit is mysterious, almost mystical. Really it's pretty simple. The two key things are seat position and handlebar position. You want the seat high enough to pedal comfortably, and you want the bars placed so you can reach them comfortably without being too stretched out or hunched over. So, you want a bike frame that lets you get the seat and the bars in the right place without resorting to extreme measures.
To fine tune the fit, I prefer to sit a bit in back of the pedals and I like the bars to be about even with the seat so I don't have to bend over to reach them. This puts less weight on my hands. I can right the bike while laying my hands down lightly on the bars and still have complete control. In general, I think the simple guidelines that Grant Peterson favors are just about right.
Ride a Lazy Gear
You should ride in a gear that lets you spin comfortably at about 90-100 rpm. Spinning like this means you aren't fighting the resistance of a high gear and you are generating power with leg speed rather than sheer brute force. This is good for gimpy weaklings like me who don't want to do weights to build power. Of course, when you get on that hill that is too steep, you can't always manage a high cadence. Well, unless you are Lance Armstrong.
Coast Down Hill
You worked hard to get up the hill. Have fun going down. Unless you are chasing down that breakaway that threatens your lead in the overall, I see no reason to hammer down hills.
Find a friend who you can keep up with and the next time you ride, just stick to his back wheel like your life depends on it. Guess what? You can ride the same speed, or faster, than you usually do while doing less work! You'll find that you can take little breaks on the flats while he plows through the wind for you. This is great! Whatever you do, do not get on the front and take a pull unless you are threatened with bodily injury. Doing work means you are not being lazy.
When I'm in shape enough to keep up with a fast group ride over the rollers, I find that I gain about 2-3mph in average speed over what I can do on my own on a 30 mile ride. This is all because i sit behind my friend Bill while he does all the work.
If you feel bad about mooching off of others, watch Lance Armstrong in the next Tour. All he does is sit there behind his teamates while they do all the work. If Lance can do it, so can you.
No Fitness Data Collection
Generally, fitness gadgets are junk that cost money and time. You don't need a heart monitor to tell you if you are in better shape. And for God's sake don't download heart data into a spreadsheet and start calculating average power output. This will tell you very little besides the fact that compared to Lance your cardiovascular system is puny and weak.
The one device that is slightly useful is a bike computer that tells you distance and average speed. Now, to find out if you are getting more fit, just find a big hill and note if you can climb it faster. When I get more fit, I can climb hills at faster speeds in higher gears. You aren't training for the Tour De France here. You're just having fun. So spend the time riding, not data mining. If you want, you can keep a simple ride diary to track average speed. But that's a lot of work too.
The Best Way To Get in Shape
This isn't really for the lazy. But the best way to get better on the bike is to climb hills. Yes, it hurts, but trust me, making yourself ride time trials or do sprint intervals on a regular schedule is less fun and probably not that much more effective unless you are training to race, and lazy people do not race. So, go out and ride up hill. At least that way you get to coast (remember! lazy!) down the other side when you are done.
Next time: How to train for a century ride the lazy way.
April 04, 2005
You know it's going to be a bad day when the first thing you read when you wake up is that the PA Legislature is considering a bill that reads, in part:
Section 1. The act of act of March 10, 1949 (P.L.30, No.14), known as the Public School Code of 1949, is amended by adding a section to read: Section 1516.2. Teaching Theories on the Origin of Man and Earth.--(a) In any public school instruction concerning the theories of the origin of man and the earth which includes the theory commonly known as evolution, a board of school directors may include, as a portion of such instruction, the theory of intelligent design. Upon approval of the board of school directors, any teacher may use supporting evidence deemed necessary for instruction on the theory of intelligent design.
The Scopes "Monkey Trial" was over 80 years ago, but we are still having to deal with fallout from people who feel it is a cultural imperative that we raise our children to be ignorant.
So, what can you do about it? Well, if you're a Pennsylvania resident, I think you should write your State Representative and tell them that you think this legislation is a terribly bad idea. You can find out your representative's name and address by going to this page and typing your zip code in the box in the upper-right corner.
Here's the letter I'm writing.
Dear [Name of Representative here]:
I'm writing to you to urge you to oppose House Bill No. 1007, which I believe will seriously compromise the quality of science education in Pennsylvania public schools.
Science is not simply the collection and categorization of facts, but is the practice of continually making observations, developing hypotheses, and then testing those hypotheses. Because Intelligent Design does not offer any empirically testable hypotheses, it is not science. Universities very actively rate school districts based on the quality of the education they provide. If Pennsylvania develops a reputation as a Commonwealth that provides a poor science education in its public schools, it will be that much harder for our children to gain admission to top Universities. This, in turn, will further degrade Pennsylvania's job market and tax base. Pennsylvania is already having difficulty attracting and retaining young families and skilled workers. If House Bill No. 1007 passes, families that care about the quality of their childrens' scientific education will have another reason to leave Pennsylvania.
Please help our schools stay competitive by keeping our science classes focused on science, not politics.
Very Truly Yours,
Any readers who want to write to their Representatives should feel free to borrow from my letter, if you like. Of special interest to Western PA residents is that the sponsors of the bill include Representatives Bastian (Somerset County), Ellis (Butler County), and Petrarca (Westmoreland County). The bill has been referred to the Education committee (see below for details). I plan on sending my letter to all of the members of the committee. Perhaps you should, too. Pittsburgh readers should especially note that Representative Michael Diven and Thomas Stevenson, both members of the Education committee, are from Allegheny County.
Please contact your representatives before this gets out of the Education committee. Write them, email them, call them. Let's stop this before it exposes Pennsylvania to national ridicule, not after.
Update: it occurs to me that there's one other thing you can do. If you live in Pennsylvania, and you have a weblog, either link to this article or write your own article on the subject. I was shocked that this bill has gotten all the way to committee without a word in our local papers. We've got to shine a light into the dark corners of this legislation, and getting the word out about it will be a good first step. Thanks.
April 01, 2005
In a world where it seems as if every web site has dumb and mostly unfunny pranks, some just plausible enough to make you do a spit-take before you've had your coffee, only Tea Leaves provides shelter from the storm.
Once again it is our privilege to present a simple, modest space with no April Fool's jokes. Enjoy!