May 31, 2005

Service with a Smile

by psu

Our last night in Paris, we found ourselves at Brasserie Balzar for dinner. This place is something of a landmark (even with its recent aquisition by a large corporation) in the center of the St. Germain area. The place is pretty popular, so it was with a certain lack of wisdom that we arrived sans reservations, much to the annoyance of the manager. We explained in our broken Junior High French that yes, we should have made reservations, but that we would be happy to take any table, perhaps the small one there on the terrace? Yes, that would be fine. Having made friends with the manager, we sat down to dinner and entertainment.

The terrace was being served by a single waiter. He was such a French Waiter that he could have been a stock character in a movie set in Paris where the main story goes through a café. He looked terminally frazzled and successively oppressed by his management and his clients.

There were two particular clients who were the main source of his pain tonight. They looked like an American couple of mixed race (Indian? Chinese?) who appeared to be in Paris for the first time. We heard the conversation in pieces, and it appeared to center around the existence, or not, of a "vegetable plate". The couple scanned the menu, asked the waiter about some dishes in fast English. The waiter attempted to explain to the best of his abilities, but the couple did not seem happy with this, and asked more questions. The waiter then fell back on just recommending one of a series of dishes on the menu that were salad-like. But the couple was still not satisfied. They did not want a vegetable plate, they wanted "vegetable dishes." Of course, such things were relatively rare. Through multiple iterations of this, the couple kept pressing until the waiter finally became patronizing and belligerent. But I was on his side. You need to understand two things about France to see why.

First, you have to understand that Balzar, like most traditional brasseries, serves primarily classic French dishes, heavy on meat, with a few seafood items in addition to coffee, dessert and drinks. The emphasis is on reasonably good food reasonably fast (by French standards). This means steak frites, various roast things, cassoulet, and so on. If you go to France, you should keep this in mind. A brasserie is not the place to find something off the beaten track. You go there because you know what you will be getting and you know they will do it well.

You do not go there for salad. Salad is a side dish that you might get along with your veal liver and fries, or your braised saddle of lamb or your steak tartare. What this couple did not seem to understand is that they had come to completely the wrong place for the meal they wanted. There exist any number of other places that will happily serve you a large salad (though generally not a vegetarian one) for dinner. But Brasserie Balzar is not that place. These people should have known this, or, having realized their mistake, should have rolled with it rather than being such a pain in the ass.

The second thing that you have to understand about France, and Paris in particular, is that if you are giving the service people a hard time, they will be rude to you. If you are self-effacing and especially if you admit to speaking bad French after a valiant attempt, they will treat you with some amount of sympathy. But if you blather at them from a position of ignorance, they will treat you badly.

This, in fact, is what happened to our happy couple. After one more iteration, the exasperated waiter started yelling and pointing at the menu. I had no sympathy. In my opinion, they were getting the service they deserved, expecting special treatment at a place they had chosen badly and giving the staff no reason whatsoever to give it to them.

At this point, the two gave in and ordered what he had recommended. He then turned his attention to us. Karen ordered a nice piece of lamb, and I ordered the steak tartare. He looked at me with astonishment.

"You know what this is?", he asked.


"It's not cooked."

"Yes, I know. A lot of people do not know this?"

"Yes. They order the steak tartare, or the andouillette (a type of sausage), and then they say, 'Oh, this is not what I wanted' and send it back. This happens all the time."

We knodded with sympathy, and assured him that we knew what we were getting. Although, I did misread the menu and I didn't get the salad I expected. This being my mistake, I snitched green beans off Karen's plate instead.

C'est La Vie.

Posted by psu at 08:21 PM | Comments (1)

May 30, 2005

Blueberries Spotted

by peterb

The pints of blueberries have arrived. I am happy, until late September.

Posted by peterb at 06:05 PM | Comments (3)

May 27, 2005

The Perfect Storm

by psu

If you ever find yourself sitting in the F terminal of the FilthyPhiladephia International Aiport waiting for a U.S. Airways Express plane to take you back home to Pittsburgh, you know you have had a bad day. Every single person at the gate had the same story to tell. There was the woman who had been four hours late getting out of Seattle and re-rounted half way around the world and back to the F terminal. There was the Westinghouse manager who pulled into the gate with the only food he had had all day, a large latte, and a story about how his international flight had lost an hour at takeoff. And there were several people who, like us, had been two hours late taking off from Paris and, having missed connections, ended up here.

It's hard to think of experiences more unpleasant than spending 11 hours on an Airbus A330, but really, that wasn't the hard part of the day. It was the two hours in that nexus of human suffering that we humans call the PHL International Arrivals area that put me over the edge. I believe that U.S. Airways, the city of Philadelphia, the TSA, and the architects who designed the international wing of PHL all should be given some kind of award for accidentally perfecting the optimally bad customer service experience. It must have taken a lot of work over a lot of years to do this, but they nailed it.

Note: I usually try to keep this a family blog, but the following entry is, as Lenny Henry once put it, the result of all kinds of rude words dancing around in my head trying to get out, so be warned.

Everything started out smoothly enough. Up at 7am, packed at 8am, out into the absolutely perfect warm spring Paris day to get our last coffees at 8:30, back for the taxi by 10. All according to plan. The trip to and through the CDG airport also proceeded without major incident. By 12:45 we were on the plane with all of our toddler toys, videos, extra food and water, and ready for the long haul back to Pittsburgh. By 1:15 the plane was loaded and had started to push back. At this point, we missed a departure slot and were told that we'd wait 15 minutes to get to the runway. Then we were told that the plane had a minor technical problem, then we had a long taxi to get it fixed, then they powered down the engines to save fuel, then they told us we had to wait 30 more minutes for taxi clearance, then they turned the engines back on, then we missed another takeoff slot. Toddlers and adults alike were getting antsy. Finally after two hours on the runway, we took off.

At this point, we should have made a strong decision that the connection we had booked was lost. We all knew this, and we told it to ourselves, but our resolve was not forceful enough. Anyway, nine hours passed on the plane with no major problems. I am here to tell you that if you think you have a good kid, there is no kid on the planet more perfect than mine. This is an objective fact. Name me the last time your toddler sat still on a plane for 11 hours non-stop making nary a peep. Yeah, I thought so.

We landed in Philly at 5:15. We had 45 minutes to get off the plane and make a 6:00 connection. In other words, we were completely doomed. Sadly, the crew planted the idea in our heads that we should hurry because there were 25 other people with the same connection, they might hold the flight, and besides, we needed to get to the rebooking line as fast as possible. As a public service to you dear reader, I am here to deliver the following message: When they say this to you on the plane or at the gate do not fucking believe one word of it because it is all fucking lies.. The truth was that we were more than an hour late on a two hour connection and no power in Heaven or Earth could have brought us to that connection on time. Four great trials stood in our way:

1. Getting off the plane. An Airbus A330 is a big airplane. It feels like a small plane because the seats are so small (and I say this as a small person). But it's huge. If you have a seat near the front, you can get off the plane pretty fast. We did not have this luxury, and we had to wait for a couple of gate checked items. This means that we sat on the plane for 20 minutes waiting for it to empty, and then another 5 minutes while they actually found our stuff.

2. International Arrivals. Out of the jetway we sprinted to the Immigration line. It's a couple of thousand feet from the gate down a long hallway with those walking paths that move. We even bypassed the whole crowed to get into the "wheelchair priority" line. But we could not avoid waiting there while the guy in the "wheelchair priority" booth spoke to a nice looking French man, no wheelchair or cane in sight, for 10 fucking minutes about the strange minutiae of PHL.

3. The Great Claim the Bags and Recheck the Bags Dance. By now, if we had been smarter, our will would have been broken. But we kept hope alive, moving through the terminal as fast as we could. We were rewarded with a half hour wait at International baggage claim. But boy I got a good workout.

What I have never understood about dealing with connections on international flights in the U.S. is why they make you wait 20 minutes to pick up your bags so you can put them on a cart, haul them 100 feet past the customs guy who doesn't even look at them, and then another 100 feet to plop them back down on a belt.

A nice gentleman on the staff at PHL tried to keep us from ruining the rest of our day by putting the bags on a cart for us and taking them to the re-check area. When we reached the re-check conveyer, he tried to fight for the forces of good and tell us that our connection was dead and we should just sit in the rebooking line right there and then. This would have been the rational choice. If we had just rebooked, we could have rechecked the bags and made sure that they stayed together and knew where they were going and when. If we had rechecked, we would have given up the insane idea that we could get through the airport fast enought to make the connection.

Sadly, a tool of Satan himself was also there. He stood in the re-check area looking calm and competent informing people that if they hurried, they could just put the bags on the belt and make it to their connecting gates. So we stupidly complied.

4. The TSA Shuffle, Remix. So we ran out of the re-check area looking for terminal A. It looked to be pretty close, but instead of hitting a gate, we hit the entire population of the plane we had just exited waiting in a TSA line having all their bags re-screened before they were allowed into the terminal. This, of course, was fucking insane. These bags were already screened before we got on the plane. In addition, the people doing the screening had big guns, and would shoot you if you did anything wrong.

I should be clear here: At this point our checked bags have entered the airport before we have because for some reason those bags don't have to be re-scanned. But, our carry on items, having been taken off the plane (which, as far as I know, had not blown up) and carried about a mile from the gate to this point, were now suddenly unsafe enough that I had to completely unpack half the bags, take my shoes off, and schlep 4 bags, a laptop, a stroller, my cell phone and a car seat through the x-ray machine because doing this makes our great and strong nation a fucking beacon for freedom and democracy around the world.

I say: fuck that. There is no fate too cruel and no punishment too grisly for the designers of this obstacle course, except they don't exist. This obstacle course was not designed. It evolved on its own through powers that we cannot control into a being of perfect customer service evil. It was bred carefully by multiple governmental and corporate agencies in the name of security, freedom, mom, and apple pie. But, instead of serving these goals in any way, it simply devours hapless travelers that venture too close to it, digests them and then spits them out on the other side of its gullet no closer to their goals than before entered.

After 1 hour and 20 minutes of frantic sprinting through this vortex of human suffering we finally got into the gate areas of the terminal, where we could find out that we missed our connection and the flight after it. It made me think: If only there were a global network of computers that could gather information about flight times, capacities and bookings and present this information at terminals remote to where it was stored, maybe when we got off the plane we could have already known we were fucked rather than running 3 miles through the airport to find out.

Final result: we boarded a U.S. Airways Express flight from Philly to Pittsburgh at 9:15, which was supposed to take off at 8:30, but didn't take off until 10:05. We got into Pittsburgh at 11pm, 21 hours after we woke up in Paris. As a bonus, only two of our three bags made it. I assume the third bag has flown back to France. We got home about 12:30, making the total transit time from Rue de Buci to Pittsburgh about 20 hours.


At this point, I would like to thank, and say a hearty fuck you to U.S. Airways, The FilthyPhiladelpha International Airport, the Transportation Security Administration, the FAA, and all the other great American organizations that made this story possible. I couldn't have done it without you. Keep up the good work.

Posted by psu at 07:26 AM | Comments (8)

May 26, 2005

Whine and Spirits

by peterb

Every so often, I think that I've reached some sort of plateau in terms of how much I hate the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. Then I make some stupid mistake, like shopping at a Pennsylvania liquor store again, and I discover new vistas of animosity and contempt.

I drove up to Cranberry tonight to get a bottle of Amaro Montenegro, because the PLCB's web site indicated it was one of the only stores west of the Susquehanna that had any. The Cranberry store is promoted as a "Premium Collection" store by the Liquor Control Board. That means that it supposedly has a better selection, nicer atmosphere, and more knowledgeable staff than the other stores.

The Premium Collection store is better than what State Stores were like when I first arrived in Pennsylvania in the late '80s. Back then, a liquor store was basically a counter with a catalog on it, and a huge storage room. "Hi," you'd say to the cashier. "I'd like a bottle of #24601." The guy would then go into the back room for a while, leaving you alone. Ten minutes later, he'd come back out front to tell you that they were all out of #24601.

So the Premium Collection store is better than that. But since I haven't seen many advertising campaigns lately along the lines of "McDonald's! Our French Fries Don't Have Fingers In 'Em!" or "Coke! Sucks Less Than Diphtheria!", I'm going to say that's a pretty low target to be reaching for.

I found the Montenegro in short order and then remembered that sometime last year I had bought a very nice 3 point Tokaji Aszu at the same store. I looked around a bit, but couldn't find it. That's when the fun began.

I approached a clerk. "Hi," I said. "I'm looking for a certain Tokaji."

I got a blank stare in return.

"Tokaji," I said. "It's a Hungarian wine. It's spelled t-o-k-a-j-i."

"Hmmm," he said, leaning against the computer on which he could check his inventory to see whether he had any of the bloody wine, "I don't think I've heard of that. I don't think we have it."

"Oh," I said. "Well, how about Amaro Nonino?"

"Is that foreign, too?"

Now it was my turn to give him a blank stare.

"Yes," I said, very slowly. "It is, as a matter of fact, foreign."

"Well then, we don't have it."

I gaped in disbelief.

And then I gave up. I spent another 10 minutes or so searching the store, found the Tokaji I wanted, and left. Later, a friend suggested "You should have asked them if they had any Scotch. I hear that's foreign, too."

This is what is so frustrating about the PLCB: the problem is the people. I'm always hearing people phrase the problem in terms of state-owned stores versus "free enterprise." But that's not it. Ontario has state-run liquor stores that are a pleasure to shop in. The LCBO is exactly like the PLCB in every way, except it doesn't suck. The stores are beautiful. The staff are helpful, and care about the product. You can taste selected wines in some stores (for a price, of course, and in strictly limited quantities).

No, the problem isn't that we have a State liquor system, but that we have a State liquor system that employs people who could not care less about satisfying customers. I don't care that this guy doesn't know what Tokaji is. In a store with thousands of products, I don't expect every employee to know everything about every product. But when a customer asks a question, I expect the employees to give a damn. I expect them to want to try to help. Or, at a bare minimum, at least pretend to care.

Are there good employees who work for the PLCB? Sure. I've met a couple. But they are outnumbered by the thousands upon thousands of slack-jawed know-nothings whose only purpose on this earth is to make me rue the day that they ever got a job.

The PLCB, which claims that part of its mission is "to provide the best service to [their] customers," is an utter and complete failure when it comes to retail liquor sales. It's too late to save it. It should be dismantled, shut down, annihilated, and then cut up into seven parts, which should then be buried in remote parts of the State and left to rot.

The PLCB monopoly on liquor sales has to go.

Additional Resources

  • To see what a State liquor system that doesn't suck looks like, visit the Liquor Control Board of Ontario's web site.
  • The Tokaji I was referring to is the Hétszóló Tokaji Aszú 3, which I reviewed last year. The PLCB State stores are carrying it now. Even though it is foreign.
  • If you don't know what Amaro Montenegro is, consider reading about the Tea Leaves Amari tasting: part 1part 2

Posted by peterb at 11:14 PM | Comments (13)

May 24, 2005

...Or Anything By Tom Waits

by peterb

In 1988, LSD was popular among some people at Carnegie Mellon. So much so that when a number of people had "bad trips," the administration released a public service announcement warning people: "The acid with the picture of the sunshine on it is bad, and has been causing bad trips. Stay away from the 'bad acid'". Then, of course, for the rest of the academic year, absolutely everyone on campus used "Whoah, bad acid!" as a catchphrase.

The April Fool's edition of the school paper that year published an article talking about how the Dean of Student Affairs, whose first name was Brad, was offering to "test" any drugs that students should come across, free of charge. The (fake) article concluded with the ditty the Dean urged students to remember at all times:

Drugs are yucky
Drugs are bad
Take all your drugs
and give them to Brad!
I was working as a computer consultant for the general computing department at the time, as was my acquaintance Chris Rapier. The graveyard shifts were always a strange mixture of mind-numbing boredom punctuated with moments of transcendent weirdness. There were the people pulling all-nighters to finish their assignments (they bathed), the people who just hung around the computer clusters all the time (they didn't), and people who would wander in and out for various other reasons. Meeting friends. Eating pizza. Picking up printouts.

Chris and I were working a graveyard shift once, and some Birkenstock-wearing types were wandering through, obviously baked out of their skulls, giggling and pointing and ahhhing over everything in that supercilious tripster way.

Now Chris — well, it's hard to describe Chris, especially because I didn't know him that well at the time. He had a mohawk, and wore the punk rock attitude, but somehow it wasn't annoying because you could tell, deep down, that he knew that he was just as full of crap as the guy wearing a suit and working at the bank. He understood that the regalia wasn't proof of a lifestyle, but just a costume with pretensions. He wore it well.

But Chris was always doing crazy, stupid things, because they were fun. And seeing the tripsters wander through made me wonder about something, and we had the following conversation:

Pete: "Hey, Chris?"

Chris: "Yeah?"

"I have a question. I've been wondering — have you ever done acid?"

"No, why?"

"How come? I'm not criticizing you for not doing it or anything, but it seems like the sort of thing you'd do, just because it would cause chaos."

Chris took his feet down from the desk, got up, and began to file some printouts.
"You know, Pete, that's an excellent question. It does seem like the sort of thing I'd do. Let me explain the reason why I don't do hallucinogens. On the one hand, it's true that they might lead to interesting experiences and open my mind to new vistas. On the other hand I have to balance the fact that tripping people annoy me. They drive me nuts, and I always want to freak them out and scare them and make them have a bad time. And so I know that if I tripped, after a little while I'd start to irritate myself, and then I'd decide that I should freak myself out, and I'd go up to a mirror and try to convince myself that my face was melting, or that my brains were leaking out my nose, and then they'd have to admit me to the psych institute the next day."

This, it seemed to me, was a truly excellent answer to my question, and I went on with my shift, satisfied. I've always remembered his response, and thought about it from time to time.

And it is upon remembering that conversation again, recently, that I was inspired to come up with this simple thing: a list of songs to play to throw irritating hallucinogenophiles into bad trips.

Picking songs that accomplish this is trickier than you might think, because depending on how completely obliterated your target is, he or she might not actually have enough functioning neurons to listen to the words of whatever songs you're playing. So your choices need to not just have a liminal message that will mess with the addled mind when they think about the words, but also need enough power, dissonance, or force in the music to shake up the dumbest of droppers.

Listen to them. Love them. Keep them loaded on your portable music device at all times.

And by all means — suggest your own additions to the list.

1. Pixies - "All Over the World" from Bossanova (lyrics - iTunes)

The only question with the Pixies is which Pixies songs won't cause a bad trip. But "All Over the World" is the king of the castle. Evil vocoder processed voices? Check. Enigmatic lyrics with mysterious radioed-in messages like "Better call the a train derailment"? Check. Aggressive yet addictive guitar riff that will echo in your target's head until they are doubled over in anguish, trying to claw the invisible spiders out of their eyes? Check. This is my pick for "Most likely to require several years of psychotherapy to recover from."

2. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - "Jangling Jack" from Let Love In (lyrics - iTunes)

"Jangling Jack" is a harsh song on a harsh album. Both the music and the lyrics are nasty, brutish, and full of malignancy. I think it's a great song, but more so than any other song on this list I have to warn you that I've never met anyone else who likes it: it seems to repel people on an almost subconscious level. But it's high on this list because underneath the driving noise is a pop song riff that will pull your high-flying victim down to earth to investigate. At which point they're toast.

3. Crosby Stills Nash and Young - "Cathedral" from CSN (lyrics - iTunes)

This one is a beautiful sucker play. It wins on several levels. First, it starts off gently, floating and melodic. You could close your eyes and bliss out to it. Second, the narrator in it is (it is implied) dropping acid. So there's a self-referential loop that will begin to disorient your el-salvadoran-non-exploitative-coffee drinking friend. Then the tone changes instantly to a full on religious-crisis panic, as the narrator starts obsessing about all the people killed in the name of Christ, so if the tripper has any cultural connection to Christianity, they're instantly punched in their spiritual solar plexus.

4. Negativland - Christianity Is Stupid (lyrics - iTunes)

A driving mechanical drone. A sampled repeated voice declaiming: "Christianity is Stupid. Communism is good. Give up." Look, I'm an atheist and this song somehow creeps me out (while at the same time, making me laugh). Fire it up and test out just how open a mind can be.

5. Nina Simone - "Sinnerman" from Anthology (lyrics - iTunes)

Finishing up our trio of religion-related songs, Nina Simone delivers "Sinnerman" with an angry intensity that can't be mistaken as anything but hostile, even if you're not paying attention to the words. If you'd like a secular choice instead, you could safely substitute Simone's rendition of the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill class-warfare saga "Pirate Jenny." For some reason, no one else has ever done this song justice, in either English or German. Simone captures the raw, unbridled, impotent hate in the libretto perfectly. (lyricsiTunes)

6. Richard and Linda Thompson - "Shoot Out the Lights" from Shoot Out the Lights (lyrics - iTunes)

After recording Shoot Out the Lights, Richard and Linda Thompson divorced. If you make a happy tripping couple listen to this song, there are good odds that they'll divorce too.

7. Rollins Band - "Obscene", from The End of Silence (lyrics - iTunes)

This one is almost too easy, and I feel bad including it. But, y'know, what can you do? You just gotta have some Henry.

8. Roy Orbison - "In Dreams" from various albums (lyrics - iTunes)

This one really only works if the soon-to-be-cowering scapegoat has seen the movie Blue Velvet. It's the song you might remember as "The Candy Colored Clown They Call the Sandman."

9. Bob Mould - "Anymore Time Between" from Bob Mould (lyrics - iTunes)

Bob Mould plays every instrument on this incredible album, and despair just oozes out of every note: but the amazing production values will keep the dazed and confused mesmerized while they succumb to it. You could also substitute, more or less, any song by Mould's old band Hüsker Dü, but that might also be considered "too easy."

10. Jane Siberry - "The White Tent The Raft" from The Walking (lyrics - iTunes)

I've always had a soft spot for Toronto-area musician and songwriter Jane Siberry, who knew so little about production back in the day that she wasn't averse to just continuing to pile on layers of sound until the listener was drowning in them. Like "Cathedral," this is another song that will lull the target into a false sense of security, with its pastoral, almost lyrical opening. It's unlikely that they suspect that they'll shortly be jerking spasmodically, unable to make the pain stop as the syncopated schizophrenia of Siberry's music (and stream of consciousness, emotion-filled lyrics) fill their brain and leave no room for restful mandalas. The other nice trait of "The White Tent The Raft" is that it's about 8 million minutes long, so you can make the deep hurting last for a while.

Now, I'm not suggesting that anyone who ingests mind-altering substances should necessarily be subjected to this treatment. I'd probably save this sort of abuse only for those people who really deserve it. My rule of thumb is that if you use the word "entheogen" in place of "hallucinogen", or if you're wearing one of those stupid multicolored produced-by-indigenous-peoples knit caps, you're fair game. Everyone else is mostly safe.

That's my list. What's yours?

Additional Resources

  • Chris Rapier now does networking research. He's still brilliant.

  • Entheogen is a euphemism used by fans of hallucinogenic drugs to try to dissemble about the substances they enjoy ("I'm not hallucinating! I'm finding the God within!") It's especially adorable when they use the word in the context of giving such drugs to people without their knowledge or consent.
  • If you've got a weblog of your own and want to join in the game, post your own list of bad-trip-inducing songs and track me back (or comment), and I'll link to it here. Maybe this could be one of those "meme" things I've heard so much about, that those crazy kids with their hamburger sandwiches and their french fried potatoes are into.

Posted by peterb at 08:35 PM | Comments (7)

May 23, 2005

Ask the Audience

by peterb

Today I saw the first hour and 40 minutes of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

Instead of sharing my incomplete opinion of the part of the movie I saw, let me ask you: is it worth going back to see the end, or should I just wait for it to come out on DVD? Due to unforeseen circumstances, I left shortly after Anakin formally became Darth Vader.

So how about it? Shell out a few more bucks to see the end, or just wait until I can rent a DVD?

Posted by peterb at 10:43 PM | Comments (12)

May 20, 2005

More Forza Thoughts

by peterb

I'm still not ready to give my full review, because I'm still evaluating the game.

That being said, I have spent the past 2 hours saying "well, just one more race," and my heart is pumping in a way that it hasn't been since the San Francisco tracks of the original Project Gotham Racing. So I would be remiss if the last thing I left you with for the weekend was my cryptic "Hmmmmmmm" from yesterday.

Visually, the game is unrivalled. Even though it obviously borrows a lot from Gotham 2 in terms of the game engine, it looks better. A lot better. The palette is richer than in PGR2, which was a game that was unremittingly swathed in the dark gray concrete of street racing. Good use is made of different times of day and sunlight and shadow. The cars are lovingly modeled, although they can look a little plasticky, at times.

Part of why I'm liking the game more than GT4, so far, has nothing to do with the game itself, but with the controllers. The Xbox controllers are a joy to use in driving games. The buttons on the PS2 controllers, while technically "analog" have so little feel that they might as well be digital. The Xbox has long triggers with deep throws, that are perfect for feathering through sharp corners. I'm convinced that the Controller S is the best possible hand-held controller for driving games.

The music sucks. But fortunately, it supports soundtracks, so I can drive to Los Straitjackets or Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, instead.

But at this point, I think I'm on the verge of saying too much when I haven't played enough to be sure that I'm accurate. Rest assured, I'll be spending the weekend driving and writing, to give you the full scoop next week.

I just won a Lancer Evolution VIII from a hill climb race, and it's time to take it for a spin.

Posted by peterb at 10:07 PM | Comments (3)

May 19, 2005

Forza First Impressions

by peterb

Well, it's better than Gran Turismo 4, but...


I'm not feeling terribly optimistic today. I'll play it for a few more days before going in to more detail.

Posted by peterb at 09:48 PM | Comments (2)

May 18, 2005

Harry Up, Already

by peterb

Yes, I'm desperate for the sixth book in the Harry Potter series to be published, already.

I realize that in some circles this marks me as a rube, a sucker, someone sucking at the mass-market teat. The type of person who, if he wanted Chinese food, might go eat at P.F. Chang's.

I don't care. If Roger Ebert gets to like monster movies, I get to like Harry Potter.

I actually do agree with A.S. Byatt that J.K. Rowling does not, in fact, write beautiful sentences. She is not a writer's writer. She is, however, a superb storyteller who is crafting an intricate tale that is true enough to its archetypes to bestir recognition in most readers. And I like that she can flit back and forth between light humor and earnest seriousness so smoothly: that's a trick that other writers stumble over regularly.

So yes. I have the book pre-ordered at Amazon, and whenever I encounter an article about it, I read it. But that's not quite enough to fill the time, and the new branch of the Carnegie Library in Squirrel Hill just opened, and it turns out they have lots of books.

One of these books I picked up because Christina recommended it: Sorcery and Cecilia. Apparently, Susanna Clarke's Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell must have struck a nerve (or being cynical, must have sold fairly well), because suddenly you can't shake a stick without accidentally whapping a book about magicians in Victorian or Edwardian England. Thwap! Here's Sorcery and Cecilia. Smack! Here's The Bartimaeus Trilogy. One wonders what the next trend in light genre fiction might be. Religious cult leaders in 1920's Hollywood, perhaps?

In any event, I'm finding it an enjoyable, if somewhat silly, read. I'm often critical of fanfiction because I find it intellectually lazy: it feels to me like fanfiction writers are substituting someone else's developed mise-en-scene, characterizations, and overall setting and then grafting their plot onto it. And plot, generally, is the least interesting and unique part of a novel. To some extent, I feel like this epidemic of neo-Victoriana is similar: really, there are only so many Elizabeth Bennetts I can take before succumbing to despair. The fact that your Elizabeth Bennett is, say, evading a sinister spell in Covent Garden, or, let's see, having tea with Arthur Conan Doyle in Nevada, while helping Calamity Jane track down the murderer of her lesbian niece, Annabel Lee doesn't really improve the quality of the writing.

But, of course, I'm not reading Sorcery and Cecilia because I'm looking for superb writing. I'm just waiting for Harry. And in that respect, it fits the bill perfectly.

I've also been dipping into David Brin's Uplift novels, mostly because someone mentioned to me that they were the inspiration for the Star Control games. I'll have more to say about those another time.

Posted by peterb at 09:09 PM | Comments (9)

May 17, 2005

Books in a Blender

by peterb
Tonight, we began playing with book titles, rewritten to include references to food. Or videogames. Or both. We very quickly settled in to a groove. Here are the results.
    93. The God of Small Things That Taste Like Chicken. [peterb]

    92. The God of Stupid Console Savepoint Systems [psu]

    91. Love in the Time of Super-sizing [peterb]

    90. One Hundred Years of Solitaire [peterb]

    89. The Moor's Large Fry [agroce]

    88. Haroun and the Sea of Splinter Cell [magus]

    87. If On a Winter's Night a Deep-Fryer [peterb]

    86. The Decline of the Civilization [fpereira]

    85. Perdido Street Savepoint [magus]

    84. Waiting for the Barbarians to Cook my Chicken [agroce]

    83. The City of Cod [fpereira]

    82. Pilgrim's Pancakes [magus]

    81. The Book of the Long Island Iced Tea [agroce]

    80. The Two Tacos [magus]

    79. You Shall Know Our Cholesterol [peterb]

    78. A Tale of Two Fritters [agroce]

    77. Goodbye To All Fat [peterb]

    76. To Saute A Mockingbird [magus]

    75. For Whom the Taco Bell Tolls [magus]

    74. A Clockwork Orange Julius [magus]

    73. The Malted Falcon [magus]

    72. Julia Childs and the Goblet of Wine [peterb]

    71. Atlas Lunched [magus]

    70. Imperial Chicken Earth [baird]

    69. The Island of the Meal Before [peterb]

    68. Slaughterhouse Fries [magus]

    67. Name of the Rose Tea Cafe [peterb]

    66. A Passage to India Garden [magus]

    65. The Unbearable Lightness of Souffle [sdavis]

    64. As I Lay Frying [magus]

    63. The Remains of the Snack [peterb]

    62. To Serve Man [agroce]

    61. Love in the Time of the Coleslaw [fpereira]

    60. Finnegan's Clambake [magus]

    59. Pride and Bread and Juice. [baird]

    58. The Postman Always Brings Rice [magus]

    57. Lord of the Fries [fpereira]

    56. The Buns of August [magus]

    55. Remembrance of Wings Past [fpereira]

    54. In My Father's Torte [fpereira]

    53. Do Androids Dream of Eclectic Sweets? [sdavis]

    52. Romaine and Julian Fries. [baird]

    51. Oryx and Cake [magus]

    50. Jerky Park [fpereira]

    49. For Whom The Boule Tolls [sdavis]

    48. The Archipelago of Goulash [fpereira]

    47. Mansfield Pork [agroce]

    46. The Mixer and Margarita [fpereira]

    45. Sandwich Personae [magus]

    44. Six Easy Peaches [magus]

    43. Tao Te Chicken [sdavis]

    42. Zen and the Art of Bakery [peterb]

    41. The Elements of Stirfry [magus]

    40. Twelve Hungry Men [sdavis]

    39. Fast Food Nation [tmwong]

    38. The Story of the O [tmwong]

    37. The Da Vinci Coke [magus]

    36. The Fridge [fpereira]

    35. The Da Vinci Cod [fpereira]

    34. Live and Let Fry [peterb]

    33. From Russia With Borscht [peterb]

    32. License to Grill. [tmwong]

    31. Life of Pie [magus]

    30. The Pizzan Cantos [agroce]

    29. In Search of Ancient Anchovies. [baird]

    28. The Reuben on the Rye [magus]

    27. R Is For Ratatouille [magus]

    26. A Candycane for Leibowitz [magus]

    25. The Latke of Heaven [magus]

    24. More Than Hunan. [baird]

    23. Free Liver Free [agroce]

    22. They Eat Horses, Don't They? [peterb]

    21. The Adventures of Sharkleberry Fin [magus]

    20. Starship Tapas [magus]

    19. Planet of the Grapes [jch]

    18. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Sous-Chef [magus]

    17. Rendezvous with Ramen [agroce]

    16. The Bostonian Creams. [baird]

    15. The Book of the New Dumpling House [magus]

    14. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad "Chicago-Style" Pizza [peterb]

    13. Green Eggs and Ham on Rye [magus]

    12. Alice in Wonderbread. [baird]

    11. The Bread Zone [magus]

    10. Harry Potter and the Half-Caf Latte [magus]

    9. The Lunchback of PF Changs. [baird]

    8. The Sandwich of Monte Cristo [peterb]

    7. The Three Musketeers Bar [peterb]

    6. The English Pot Roast [magus]

    5. The Polar Espresso [magus]

    4. Oliver Twist Bread. [baird]

    3. Cryptoyumicon [peterb]

    2. Burgers of Infinity [magus]

    1. A Civil Canape [magus]

Posted by peterb at 12:09 AM | Comments (2)

May 16, 2005

Raise a Glass

by peterb

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated antediluvian and protectionist state laws that prevent direct sale and shipment of wine by out-of-state vendors to consumers, at least in states which allow direct shipment by in-state wineries.

The case, Granholm v. Heald, can be obtained online. It remains to be seen whether this will have any practical impact in Pennsylvania, since I'm uncertain if PA allows direct shipment of wine by in-state wineries to consumers.

But I'm in favor of anything which has even a chance of damaging the quite useless and offensive State monopoly on alcohol sales. Here's a toast to the hope that the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is suddenly about to earn much less revenue.

Update: Eagle-eyed reader Julie Watt, webmaster of, points to two articles in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette indicating that the rulings do affect Pennsylvania, and that the LCB is currently mulling over forbidding in-state wineries to ship to avoid having to allow consumers to have more choice. Read the articles here and here. Pennsylvania: cutting off its nose to spite its face since 1883.

Posted by peterb at 10:45 PM | Comments (3)

May 13, 2005

The Best Review Money Can Buy

by peterb

Jane at GameGirlAdvance writes an apologia for game review puffery, as a result of Gamespy getting busted perverting the central message of one of their writer's reviews. The executive summary of her article is "editing game reviews is so very hard!"

Huh? No, it isn't. Why are some authors and editors so intent on pretending that it is?

Anyone who tells you that this is a difficult, thorny problem is telling you a bunch of apologist, industry-shill claptrap. They are part of the problem.

The idea that shilling for the industry is somehow only unethical if you make a change in a review because Nintendo calls you up and demands it is ludicrous. Part of being a professional reviewer is having credibility. Credibility means that the reader has reasonable confidence that you're not so overwhelmed by the "selfless generosity" of the content producers that your reviews self-redact. Gamespy (and Gamespot, and many other sites who rely on press releases for regular content) self-redact because they know full well which side their bread is buttered on.

Regardless of whether or not Nintendo picks up the phone.

There's not a single game writer at the major sites with as much credibility as the lowliest newspaper movie reviewer (I, in my infinite sagacious wisdom, of course, have that credibility, but I don't really kid myself that I have a significant audience. And I pay for most of my games, specifically to avoid this issue.) Who, exactly, should we blame for this state of affairs, if not the people who choose to publish stories without regard to their credibility? When Roger Ebert says a movie is great, no one — no one — thinks for even a second that he's saying it because he liked the shrimp cocktail at the reception after the premiere. Where's the mainstream published game reviewer with that sort of credibility?

Not writing for Gamespy.

The other aspect of this is that of editing the writer's work. There is, as Jane points out, absolutely nothing wrong with "editing." The problem is that there is a bright line between copyediting and completely changing the meaning of a piece. To pretend that not crossing this line is challenging or difficult is disingenuous and, dare I say it, dishonest. Anyone skilled enough to be editing a magazine (even an online one) knows full well the difference between editing for readability on the one hand and changing the adjective "terrible" to the adjective "awesome" on the other. One of those is the rightful province of an editor, and the other is a violation of standard journalistic practices, and requires taking an extra 5 minutes to pick up the phone and get the author's approval. Even if you, as the editor, have screwed up and not allotted enough time for a proper editing cycle.

Jane's questions about how to fix the problem are insulting. "Oh, how can we ever solve this terrible situation? Reviewing games is so very difficult. Surely, I can't imagine any way to untie this Gordian knot without a revolution."

Here on Tea Leaves, we don't rate games in terms of stars, or little mushrooms, or indeed on any sort of a scale. As psu eloquently said to me this morning "The whole idea of ranking games is stupid. We don't rank shoes."

All that's needed to write (and edit) great reviews is a commitment to clear writing, a desire to be something other than an industry shill, and the strength of character to keep your published words consistent with that desire. One easy (though not comprehensive) measure that I like to use is noticing what percentage of a site's reviews are devoted to undercovered games (such as excellent shareware, freeware, or those published by indie game studios) as compared to those that are devoted to the same old high-marketing-budget garbage. That's the package you need to write great and credible reviews.

Some of us have that package. Greg Costikyan has it. Gamers With Jobs has it. Curmudgeon Gamer has it. Gamespy doesn't. Gamespot doesn't.

Well, how about it, Jane? Do you have it?

Posted by peterb at 08:18 AM | Comments (3)

May 12, 2005

The Consumer Rule

by psu

Buying shoes used to be easy. You'd go to the store, try on two or three pair in your size and pick the one with the closest fit. You could also count on being able to go to the same store a year or so later and get another pair of the same sort without too much trouble. In our modern economy, this has all changed in the name of maximizing choice. The forces of "fashion" and "competition" conspire to make shoes change more often than the mission statement of a late 90s new economy web startup in search of a buyer. The result is that on those rare occasions when you do find some pair of shoes which do not look like spotted pastel moon boots and also happen to fit your feet, the chances of you finding the same pair in the same store a few months from now is practically zero.

Therefore, I have formulated the following rule for dealing with this problem: When you find something you like, buy five (5) copies of it right now.

Of course, this problem, isn't limited to shoes. Almost any product that you can name has this problem. In recent months I have applied the rule to my purchases of

- Headphones.

- Cycling gloves.

- A three button mouse.

- Socks.

If I could afford it, I'd buy a couple copies of each of my digital cameras, the video camera I own and enjoy, but which is not in production anymore, my network basestations, and perhaps my laptop computer. In retrospect, it would have been nice to have been able to clone a few copies of our previous minivan, since the newer model has completely ruined the front panel interface. But, alas, the rule is not practical to apply to everything.

I find it baffling that the world has to work this way. I find it annoying that I have to worry that every single thing I buy will be gone in a week, after I decide that I like it. Finally, I find it sad that the companies that make these products are under so much pressure to "grow" that they will do so at the expense of having a consistent and predictable product line.

While I'm complaining, just why is it that you can only buy winter clothing in the summer?

Posted by psu at 08:30 PM | Comments (3)

May 11, 2005

Amari Tasting (Part 2)

by peterb
The drinks are poured

The drinks are poured

The first part of this article can be found here.

As the drinks were poured, Lidia entertained us by talking about how they are made. Generally, amari are built on a base of strong alcohol that has been infused with herbs, roots, and sometimes fruits.

They occupy a strange space because of their dual role as both pleasurable and medicinal drinks. Italians are big on this. Pick up any bottle of mineral water in Italy, and somewhere on the label will be a little testimonial by a chemist from the University of Bologna (or wherever) stating that drinking L'Acqua di Cavilfiore is good for the digestion and urinary health. Because you need a chemist to tell you that drinking water will help you empty your bladder.

But make no mistake. They are drunk for pleasure as well. Bitter tastes are valued because they have a tonic effect, cleansing the palate between meals. As we were about to discover.

Amaro Nonino

Amaro Nonino

We decided to follow Lidia's advice and taste the liqueurs in order of bitterness, from mildest to strongest. First up was Amaro Nonino. This is Dave Wagner's favorite, but since he's a regular visitor to their distillery, he admits he might be biased.

Laura: I like it a lot. It's sort of orangey-liquoricey. It's not particularly bitter. It reminds me of some Mexican coffee I had recently that you make with sugar, orange rind, and coarsely ground coffee — it's actually similar in flavor to it.

Steve: Sort of a hint of white pepper, maybe? You have the orange that's sort of burnt, and there are warm spices as well.

John: It has very much a pine overtaste to it. The pine flavor is slightly similar to rosemary. It's subtle, not at all as bitter as I expected.

Ann: I, unfortunately don't have much new — it's sweet and its orangey and it isn't very bitter and there is a spiciness to it, with pepper.

Kilolo: There's almost a hint of cinnamon to it.

Ann: Yes, definitely.

Peter: I really like the texture. One thing I don't like about some amari is there's a syrupyness to them. With this one there's almost an effervescence to it, it almost evaporates off the tongue. The taste — I agree with John it's not whacking you in the face with its bitterness.

Lidia: At the end, after the alcohol and the pepper — the taste travels in your mouth. I would say in here there are perhaps 30 different elements. Cardamom, yes? Anise, which all of these will have in some amount. And many others. Trying to distinguish all these tastes is part of the pleasure.

David: I was visiting the Nonino distillery once and when I was alone with one of the distillers tried to get him to at least give me a hint as to what was in it. "Come on," I said, "you can tell me." And he just smiled and said "Of course! Just as soon as you tell me the formula to Coca-Cola." The distillers really do view their recipes as secretively as Coke views its formula. So while we can guess what's in these, we'll never know for sure.

Ann: I have to say, I'm really enjoying just smelling these and comparing them. One smells strongly of butterscotch, one smells like mint, others smell strongly of oranges. I didn't expect this variety of scents.

Amaro Nardini

Amaro Nardini

The second drink we tried was the Amaro Nardini, which has the distinction of being based on grappa, rather than a more traditional alcohol. Laura immediately took to it.

Laura: Wow. It flows right past the center of my tongue. It's an odd flavor, and odd location. It's like a stripe right across the center of my tongue.

Kilolo: This reminds me of being home in bed, and stuffed up.

John: Like Vick's VapoRub.

Ann: I don't know if I would necessarily choose this because it is too medicinal for me.

Lidia: This is from the region closer to venice, where the tradition is for a more assertive amaro.

Peter: The aroma would probably push me away from choosing to drink this, but I want to say something positive about it, which is that it is much less sweet. Much less cloying. The Nonino left an aftertaste in my mouth taste like caramel, and this left it a bit more refreshed.

John: It has a more pronounced lingering bitterness too. More like what you'd find in a Campari.

Laura: I actually like this. One of the reasons I seek out things like this is because they're giving me something new. This is giving me a completely fascinating sensation.

Lidia: What you're talking about is really the pleasure and the enjoyment of why we eat. It's not just to nourish us, although it is nourishing, but there is also something spiritual. To be in tune, to have different sensations awaken.

Peter: And this is built on a grappa base?

Lidia: Yes.

John: That's surprising to me. I don't like grappa, but I do like this.



Next up was one of the classics, the Sicilian bitter Averna.

Peter: I find this almost indescribable, but somehow this just shouts "chocolate" to me. I mean, it doesn't taste anything like chocolate, but at the same time it tastes exactly like chocolate. OK, that makes no sense, but it's true.

Laura: (laughing) It makes me sneeze! But I agree with Peter, it's very chocolate-feeling, somehow. It's almost tastes like a candy bar I get from a store in the strip which has candied orange peel in it.

Peter: It's sweet, but not really fruity.

John: It's almost more difficult to distinguish than the last one. It tastes like bitter butterscotch to me.

Ann: Yes, very butterscotchy. It's very full-bodied. I can feel it leave a tail down my throat.

Lidia: Averna is from Sicily, which I think is one reason that it has so much more fruit than the others. The chinotto, the bitter orange, is very evident here.

At this point, halfway through the candidates, I noticed that everyone seemed more relaxed, more animated. As the bottles were passed around, the glasses were being refilled more generously. A few cheeks were flushed as we moved on to Amaro Montenegro. The Montenegro was a glowing, crystal-clear amber, as compared to the other drinks which were mostly dark brown, drab, and opaque.

Peter: This one intrigues me because its color is so different from the others. So visually it's the standout.

Kilolo: It looks like a jewel.

David: In terms of our setup here, going from least assertive to most, this is what I really perceive as the turning point to the truly bitter ones.

Lidia: It's very elegant. It doesn't depend so much on the sugar, or the caramel. It's a nice extraction. It has a nice homogenized flavor.

Peter: This literally tastes like — you can just see some guy in your mind's eye with a bunch of alcohol and bunch of roots and sticks, mashing them up.

Laura: Yeah, the bitterness, the bitter herbal flavor here is quite in your face.

Ann Funge, tasting

Ann Funge, tasting

Ann: This is almost floral.

Laura: But it is a very bitter orange scent.

David: It all marries well

Lidia: Montenegro is made in Bologna. It is more of an herbal base. In Sicily, there are more oranges, fruits, and you can taste that in the amari. There is a scent of orange here, but not as strong as in the Averna.

Steve: It's almost an orange blossom aroma, rather than orange. I used to live in Florida, and the aroma of oranges was one of the best things about living there. You get that sort of lingering, heavy aroma that's really nice.

David: It reminds me of an Italian sunset, because that's when I first tasted Montenegro. I was in Montalcino, with a glass of Montenegro, looking out on a sunset over the hills.

Peter: There's almost an overtone to it that reminds me a little bit, although it is much more elegant, of Retsina.

Ann: Retsina is oily, though. This isn't.

Kilolo: To me it tastes like lemongrass.

Laura: If you wait long enough, it tastes almost smoky, in the very back. You have to wait for it to develop though.

Peter: The depressing thing to me is that I look at this array, and I know there are people that wouldn't even try these. If they tried them, they wouldn't like them, but that's a different sort of depressing. What really frustrates me is that they wouldn't even make it into the glass.

David: So you have to make it your mission to get people to try these.

Ann: I was saying to Peter earlier, before we began the tasting, that there is romance to all this stuff, with the image of it. Peter and I are both big romantics, and I have a feeling that that's why we both like this sort of thing. And I think that's kind of how you have to sell it — as this romantic thing, conjuring up an image of a lifestyle.

Steve: There's also the natural aspect, the old-fashioned honesty of the herbs, the mixtures --

Peter: And don't forget that if you drink these, you get to pretend to be a sophisticated Italian. That counts for a lot! "Ah yes, when I return to my farm in the hills of Umbria..."

Lidia: I think what Steve says is true. One of the things these really have going for them is they really are all natural. Most liqueures are made with chemical flavorings. Here, they really are steeping bark, herbs, fruits, and so on.

Steve: Today, people are eating things that are terrible that they perceive as medicinal. I'd think that this would be an easy sell.



Peter: And mentioning marketing brings us to Cynar. And I'm sorry. We need to contact Cynar's distributor. We need to invite their representative here. And then we need to walk them around the restaurant with the bottle to watch people recoil in horror at the artichoke on the label. It is the worst label I've ever seen.

Kilolo: Where did it come from, though?

Ann: Wasn't the artichoke symbolic of something to the Romans?

Lidia It's supposed to be good for the digestion. Like artichokes, it actually contains a little cynarin, which stimulates bile production.

Peter: The other problem for me is that I like artichokes, and so I'm always angry at Cynar, because it doesn't actually taste like artichokes. But enough from me on this.

Laura: The interesting thing about this is that I'm completely unable to identify the smell. It just doesn't register — it smells like Cynar. It doesn't smell like anything else.

Lidia: It smells like Chinotto.

Peter: Yes, wow, that's it! It smells like Chinotto. It's this soda made from the bitter orange. I like bitter sodas, but the Chinotto soda is truly foul.

Laura: You fed me that soda once! I should have never let you talk me into tasting it.

Peter: I was trying to get rid of it. I was desperate.

Ann: This makes a really fast transition from sweet to bitter.

Steve: And there's a real smokiness to it.

Laura: Yes.

David: It's interesting, it's like what is appealing in America or is not. The Cynar name, the label and the artichoke are all of great value in Europe. Why compromise them for Americans? It's a big subject in the rest of the world where they are adapting to the American palate because it's the biggest market. Look at the Mondavi effect, where the artesianal winemakers are losing out to the big, Wal-mart-ized wine makers in each country. It's a real shame.

Laura: I agree that Americanizing the flavor would be a tragedy, but I'm not sure that Americanizing the label would be such a bad idea in this particular case. I mean, even before I knew what it was, I'd see it in the state store and say to myself "What the...I'm not drinking artichoke liqueur!"

David: But you noticed it...

Laura: That's true.

Fernet (en ensemble)

Fernet (en ensemble)

We were down to our last glass: the archetypal amaro: Fernet Branca.

Peter: In Europe, this is famous, and I've never had it because the State Liquor stores here are terrible.

Laura: It tastes like Pine-Sol. It's itchy and piney. Not in a bad way, but it...hmmmm.

Peter: I always thought that Branca Menta, where you mix this with creme de menthe, was about trying to make it mintier, but now I realize the creme the menthe is to cut it or make it smoother. Or make it not hurt quite so much.

Ann: It has almost a powdery or a talcum-like aroma.

Laura: I think it would be nice to pour this over ice cream.

David: I think that tasting them as we are is appropriate, but if you were having this as a digestivo, it would be on the rocks.

Peter: I like it, but not without reservations. Some of these others, like the Montenegro, I would force a guest to try and then if they didn't like it I would yell at them and try to figure out what was wrong with them. But this is so over the top and intense that I would not insist that a guest enjoy it as much as me. Of course, this is my sixth drink, so maybe that's why I like it.

David: I think that for me the Nonino is the one that I consider the best introduction.

Lidia: Also, you can put this in coffee, in espresso.

Ann: For me the most notable aspect is the chalky aftertaste.

Laura: This just feels like it should go in cream to me somehow.

Ann: It's overpoweringly bitter.

John: This is not light. It's less mellow than all of the others combined. I'd like to give this to my dad and see the look on his face.

Having tasted all the drinks, we sat back and reviewed what we had experienced. The clear favorites were the Nonino (as a gentle introduction) and the Montenegro (as a somewhat more assertive and interesting choice). The Fernet was mostly eyed with fear and awe, even by those of us who liked it. Laura felt the Nardini was unique and loved it because of how it felt in her mouth, but the rest of us viewed it as tasting and smelling too medicinal too be enjoyable. The Averna, we agreeed, was balanced but perhaps a little too sweet, and fared worse from being immediately compared to the Montenegro. No one except Lidia was really willing to stand up for Cynar.

Hopefully, the designated drivers (and you, dear reader) will get a chance to try some of these soon. They are interesting, unique, and can be found or special ordered at most liquor stores.


If you enjoyed this piece and would like to read more about amari, Laura Valentine has written about her experiences at the tasting with great eloquence .

Tea Leaves would like to thank everyone who made this possible: Lidia's owners Lidia Bastianich and Dave Wagner, and Lidia's of Pittsburgh manager Michael Fitzurka, as well as our panelists (John Barbera, Anne Funge, Kilolo Luckett, Steve Posti, Laura Valentine) and their designated drivers, who had to watch us drink delicious liqueurs and then listen to us talk about them incessantly for the rest of the day. Thanks also to psu, who took the photos, and Chetan Ahuja for videotaping the event, making this transcript possible.

Posted by peterb at 07:56 AM | Comments (6)

May 10, 2005

¡Taqueria Mi Mexico! Redux

by psu

Since we live there part time now, I thought it would be fitting to provide a bit more commentary on the new Mexican place in Squirrel Hill.

The Big Picture

Go there, now.

Some Extra Details

In our previous episode, Pete recommended the chorizo, barbacoa (goat), tripas (tripe) and lengua (tounge) tacos. I can vouch for these recommendations and add that the longaniza (spicy sausage), carnitas (roast pork), and cabesa (cow's head) tacos are also yummy.

As nice as the tacos are though, three other items in the place stand out as my favorites.

First, the green salsa that they set out has evolved to be a truly fantastic condiment. It is a hearty mix of tomatillos, green chili peppers, cilantro, onion and maybe just a bit of avacado used as a thickener. Spicy without being overly hot. Thick and rich without being too heavy. It's perfect.

Second, the tortas are really good and are possibly an even better value than the tacos. You can get tortas with all of the same fillings as the tacos. In addition, they come topped with onion, avacado and jalapenos, and the whole thing is squished between thick slices of fresh bread. My favorite is the chorizo. It seems to strike the best balance, and the spice from the sausage really makes the bread taste good.

Finally, Jarritos Lime Soda. Yum. Too bad they've been out of it the last two days.

So there you have it. Go get some.

Posted by psu at 06:45 PM | Comments (5)

May 09, 2005

Take This .sit and Stuff It

by peterb

Dear Mac Developers:

I know very well that software developers are creatures of habit. Given a tool that does roughly 80% of the job we need to do (such as Emacs, or the X Windowing System), we are inclined to grab on to it with both hands and refuse to let go until we are forced to.

Today I would like to try to force Mac developers to stop using Stuffit. Stuffit is evil, and must be destroyed.

First and foremost, Stuffit is an application that, under OS X, serves absolutely no useful purpose. Every single thing that Stuffit does is done better by services that are built in to the operating system. If you are distributing your software in .sit form, then every Mac user in the world has to do extra work in order to use your software. More to the point, you are doing unnecessary extra work to ship your software (and paying money that would be better spent on pizza and coke, to boot.)

It's so silly, so wasteful, so wrong. Even if you feel that creating a compressed disk image with Disk Utility is too much work, you can make a distributable archive that's more compatible, easier to use, and faster to both pack and unpack. Go to the Finder. Choose a folder. Control-click on it and choose "Make an archive of this folder." Congratulations, you now have a zip file that can be distributed to your users (and, since Stuffit will uncompress zip files, you're not even leaving your three or four OS 9 users out in the cold.)

Amount of extra money you had to spend to package and compress your software: $0.

Amount of extra money your users had to spend to uncompress your software: $0.

Number of additional programs your users have to download or purchase to uncompress your software: none.

Relying on Stuffit is even more foolish now that OS X 10.4 "Tiger" is out, because Stuffit Expander doesn't ship with the OS anymore. I don't know why, but it doesn't particularly bother me; as mentioned above, OS X supports the saner (and less encumbered) .zip and .dmg formats natively. Even after an archive install, Stuffit doesn't work out of the box — you have to reinstall. When I realized this, just for fun, I consciously decided to not install Stuffit at all to try to simulate the new user experience (after all, if my Grandma bought a new Mac, she'd have no idea that Stuffit even existed, right?) And what I've noticed is that there are a surprising number of applications that are distributed in .sit form (or even worse, BinHex) for no good reason whatsoever.

It's just force of habit.

So unless you're targeting your application for Mac OS 9 (in which case I hate you), using Stuffit costs you money (because you have to buy the packaging app), prevents some percentage of users from using your app at all (because they will never buy or install Stuffit), and makes those who do have Stuffit installed go through a little bit of pain (because they have to sit there while a comparatively super-slow Stuffit process forks and does its thing).

Furthermore, each successive edition of Stuffit has become more and more facehuggerware. If you go to Allume's web site and try to download the "free" edition of Stuffit, you'll end up downloading the time-limited demo of their full product, which nobody in the entire world actually wants. Basically, Allume deserves some sort of Annoyance Award for managing to craft an app distribution mechanism that is actually worse than RealPlayer's. Ask yourself: what conceivable justification does one have for installing an extension to run a user-level uncompression routine? After you upgrade to Tiger, Stuffit Expander stops working until you find (by hand!) the "Stuffit Engine" file and put it into the right magic directory (or, you can just give up and reinstall Stuffit from scratch). It's as if the idea that an application should be self-contained is repulsive to the authors of Stuffit. The only way they could possibly make their software less pleasant to install and use would be if, whenever I double-clicked the application, bees flew out of my Mac's USB port and stung me in the eyes.

Don't believe me? Here's a sample of the comments up at versiontracker on this issue:

Unbelievable: Allume are now up on my "most hated" list, surpassing Real. If you try and download StuffIt from their website you HAVE to give them a valid email address, so that they can spam you and try and persuade you to buy the "deluxe" version.

The thing that I find maddening here is that the makers of Stuffit are trying to facehug their way into getting you to pay for a service that already works great for free. And, apparently, they've done a good job of fooling people into thinking their format is essential, since lots of newly developed Mac apps (for example about half of these games) are compressed with Stuffit.

Once upon a time, Stuffit solved a real problem. Today, Stuffit is the problem. I appreciate that the guys at Allume have every right to try to make a buck. But I say sincerely, and without malice, that I hope they are forced to find some other way to make that buck. Write an app that does something the OS doesn't do for me, or that at least does it better.

Here's my challenge to you, Mac users. When you upgrade to Tiger, don't even bother reinstalling Stuffit expander. Spread the word to the people providing your apps that you'd appreciate getting them in a reasonable format (such as zip, dmg, or dmg.gz) that doesn't require you to download third-party software.

Additional Resources

There are some other things that lazy developers use even though they're really quite horrid. We've written about quite a few of them here:
Posted by peterb at 12:52 PM | Comments (41)

May 06, 2005

Scopes Redux

by peterb

I don't normally just link to other weblogs without a connecting article, but I think that Red State Rabble's continuing coverage of the kangaroo court trying to re-introduce creationism in Kansas is self-explanatory, and import enough to warrant a bare link.

Remember: if this sort of skullduggery succeeds in Kansas, it's likely that Pennsylvania is next.

Posted by peterb at 07:56 PM | Comments (1)

May 05, 2005

Pan and Oven

by psu

Back when I first got my Tivo, I recorded too many episodes of a Discovery Channel series called "Great Chefs". What they did was to send a film crew into a restaurant kitchen and tape the chef making a dish or two or three off of the menu. Being something of a food geek, it was occasionally interesting to watch someone really brilliant making something really excellent. In retrospect though, the show was pretty annoying.

However, after watching a few dozen episodes, I did notice and learn one critical thing. Always use the stove and the oven at the same time, especially when cooking portion sized pieces of meat and fish. With this in mind, here is an easy way to make perfect fish filets every time.

First, you go to Whole Foods and buy a good piece of fish. Whole Foods helpfully wraps the fish in a sturdy paper that is lined with plastic. For my purposes, rich medium thick pieces of fish work best. This means snapper, salmon filets, halibut, red trout and so on.

When you get the fish home, unwrap it and put it on the counter next to the stove. Keep the paper underneath the fish and dust it on both sides with flour, salt and pepper. Turn the oven on to 350-400 degrees. When the oven is hot, put a pan on the fire. When the pan is hot, put butter and olive oil and throw the fish in the pan. Roll up the paper wrapping and throw it out. No dishes!

Brown the fish on both sides and then put the frying pan in the oven. Cook for about 3-5 minutes for each inch of thickness, depending on how well done you like it. You should not like it that well done. For longer cooking times, turn the fish once.

When the fish is done, pull it out of the oven and let it rest. It will continue to cook while resting, so it is best to take it out underdone and let it get just right.

Serve with pan fried spinach and Whole Foods tater tots (really, I'm not kidding).

The key to this technique is that the pan puts a nice brown sear on the outside of the fish but the oven provides even all around heat so you can get the fish cooked through without burning it.

You can, of course use this same trick for steak. It also works well for frittatas.

If you want to get fancy, you can also deglaze the pan with wine and make a nice sauce with some shallots, stock and butter. Red wine, demiglace, shallots and butter is an especially nice combination on top of that New York strip steak.

Posted by psu at 09:38 PM | Comments (1)

May 04, 2005

Playable Classics: Star Control II

by peterb
I first encountered Star Control on the Sega Genesis. At the time, there wasn't anything to indicate that it would eventually lead to one of the best computer games I'd ever play.
"I must destroy you...for the children!"

The first game in the series was fun. Not Earth-shaking, not life-changing, but fun. It was, at heart, a dressed up version of the classic Spacewar game: meant for two players, each player controls a ship and tries to blow the other one out of the skies. They added to the classic formula by giving each ship unique weapons and powers as well as a unique look, handling characteristics, and a backstory in the manual explaining a little bit about the species that was flying it.

Combat in Star Control II

Combat in Star Control II

Each ship had a primary weapon and a secondary fire mode which often affected the enemy's mobility. For example, the VUX Intruder had a powerful but very short range laser. It's secondary fire mode was to release slow-moving blobs that tracked its opponent and, when it made contact, slowed him down substantially. The Chenjesu Broodhome fired long range missiles that could be detonated remotely and had a secondary fire mode where it released a device which sapped the enemy's power. The differing ships and weapons were not just graphical flourishes, but were significantly different. Choosing one ship over another had serious tactical implications.

Around this core mechanic they wrapped a trivial strategic game, a sort of glorified 3D risk. Each of the races in the game was considered to be on one of two teams: the "Alliance of Free Stars" or the "Ur-Quan Hierarchy." Players moved their ships through a hard-to-interpret rotating 3D map of star systems, and when two ships occupied the same system, they fought.

If you think this mechanic sounds similar to the superb classic Archon, you're right. And it's no surprise. One of the principals behind Star Control was Paul Reiche III, who was partially responsible for Archon. Reiche also worked on the seminal (though flawed) Starflight series of games. Starflight involved exploring a huge galaxy filled with interesting and amusing alien creatures and a dramatic, intricate, and slowly-revealed plot. It was engaging and exciting in 1986, but many aspects of the user interface failed to stand the test of time.

Star Control II takes the deep space exploration and epic plot style of Starflight, and marries it to the fast-paced, rock-paper-scissors arcade combat of Archon. The sum is better than its parts.

"Your behavior makes clear the very slight distinction between bravery and suicidal stupidity."

Star Control II starts with humanity defeated, crushed by the Ur-Quan Hierarchy, enslaved and confined to Earth. Through a series of fortunate events, you conveniently find yourself in possession of an immensely powerful alien vessel. You have just arrived in our solar system, and begin trying to find a way to free Earth and, y'know.

Save the Universe.

Scanning a planet

Scanning a planet

Saving the Universe, at least initially, involves traveling to many uninhabited planets and mining them for precious materials. Along the way, you'll find strange items. You'll see wondrous celestial objects. And you'll meet intriguing alien races who are by turns frightening, amusing, hilarious or irritating, and you'll kill some of them.

Your immensely powerful alien vessel can be used in combat, but if you lose it, the game ends. Fortunately, you can carry up to 10 smaller ships (with the aforementioned different strengths and weaknesses) to be used in combat on your behalf. This keeps combat interesting. Combat isn't, to my mind, the real point of Star Control II, though. The real point is talking to the aliens.

"It turns out that in their last lives, the Ilwrath were all shining beings of pure light and blissful love. They had reached the pinnacle of spiritual evolution and could go no further. They were perfection. And then, somehow they got just a tiny bit better and WHAM, they were all of a sudden totally evil. Wouldn't you know it, get too perfect and you wrap right around to evil."

It's difficult to talk in detail about the aliens in Star Control II without giving away details which would spoil the plot. There are a wide variety of them, vividly realized in very simply animated illustrations and enjoyable dialogue. The conversation trees are not unlike those you encounter in Jade Empire, although they're a little less safe. If you choose to be belligerent in the wrong place, the consequence could be losing a valuable ally in the war against the Ur-Quan.

The Ur-Quan (click to enlarge)

The Ur-Quan (click to enlarge)

The Ur-Quan themselves are superbly-depicted bad guys. They look a bit like Cthulhu, but somewhat meaner. They're highly intelligent, and highly motivated. This is one of the reasons I love the game so much. I love a game with enemies I can respect. The Ur-Quan aren't evil. They're just very, very motivated to prevent certain things from ever happening again, and have decided that conquering every sentient species in the Universe is the best way to achieve their goal.

The balance in dialogue is weighted towards comic relief early in the game and gets progressively more serious as the plot develops, although you can always find a bit of the absurd lurking somewhere, if you look hard enough.

The writing is good throughout. It ain't Dostoevsky, but it serves the tone of the game perfectly. The funny parts will make you laugh out loud, and the serious parts will make you think.

"Oh no! It's one of those ultra-gross humans again! Quick, hide your eye! AGGH! Look at the pulpy red thing in its mouth, how it wriggles and writhes like a wet blood worm and plays over the hard white nubs that protrude from its headbone! I think I'm going to be sick."

The universe of the game is immense. There are just under 500 star systems, all of which can be visited, most of which have planets, sometimes many planets. Many of these don't have anything to do with the main plotline, but the fact that they are there lends an open-ended feeling to the game that others have been striving (and failing) to emulate ever since. Yet the game is scripted such that it's almost impossible for you to simply be a lost wanderer, not sure of what you can or should do next. If you decide to disregard the plot and go noodling through obscure corners of the galaxy, it's because you are choosing to do so, not because you're lost.

The stars are all named after real stars, which is nice. Their actual locations have nothing to do with the real sky. I think I can forgive that.

The original game is not even remotely playable on Windows or Macintosh. How, then, can I designate this to be a Playable Classic?

In 2002, the creators released the source code to the 3DO version of the game as open source software. A group of dedicated fans took that code and created a fully-realized, multi-platform, OpenGL game called The Ur-Quan Masters (the Star Control name could not be used because it is trademarked). The game is available for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux. The original soundtracks are available for the game, as are the recorded voiceovers for all dialogue, which are quite good. This adds an extra dimension over the MS-DOS version that I played in 1992. There are 50 slots for save games. You can save any time you're not in combat. You can play fullscreen, or in a window, at any number of resolutions. It works great.
"Now I am certain that you are an honest and friendly being who is forced entirely through unfortunate circumstance — the unreasonable hostility of the Universe — to travel the galaxy in a ship which, according to my sensors, is best suited for conducting planetary-scale genocide."

So in The Ur-Quan Masters we have a better than picture-perfect port of one of the best games ever developed, available for free, that runs on all major software platforms.

Truly, we live in miraculous times.

The Ur-Quan Masters can be downloaded for free at Sourceforge. (Update: psu was my Mac guinea pig and says that Mac users should download the "unofficial" version here, because it is a more turnkey install. Also, if you're on Mac OS X 10.4 ("Tiger"), make sure the "OpenGL" box is checked.)

If you are trying it for the first time, I truly envy you. You are about to play a game that you will remember for the rest of your life.


Posted by peterb at 09:38 PM | Comments (7)

May 03, 2005

Mechanical Narrative

by psu

Two things have stuck in my brain about games lately.

The first is a long thread at The Grumpy Gamer that starts out being about cut scenes in modern games, and quickly meanders off through long and interesting discussions about the nature of narrative and games. A lot of people in thread lament the fact that many modern games are really just linear slogs from cut scene to cut scene.

The second is a snippet from one of the "Making of Halo 2" documentaries that came with the special edition of the game. You see one of the Bungie developers playing Halo and the voiceover describes what he is doing. First he sneaks up behind an enemy and wacks him on the head, then throws a grenade, then cleans up the survivors with the machine gun. Finally, he snipes a few far away enemies to clear the area. The Bungie guy then says "the challenge in the game design is how to string together this same 30 seconds of gameplay over and over again for 10 or 15 hours and keep it interesting."

Putting these two thoughts together made me think about the structure of the games I've been playing recently. The thread on the Grumpy Gamer points out that most of the big ticket games these days really are just fairly simple journeys in a straight line through the "plot" of the game. It also made me realize even the best of these narratives are, when compared to other mature narrative forms, fairly infantile and juvenile. Consider:

Knights Of the Old Republic: Main character with mysterious past must travel forward through a series of areas in The Empire and discover her ultimate destiny, be it for good or evil.

Mario and Luigi: Save Princess Peach! Uh oh! Save her again!

Knights of the Old Republic 2: Main character with mysterious past must travel forward through a series of areas in The Empire and discover her ultimate destiny, be it for good or evil.

Halo 2: Bad ass space marine fights a one man war. Between battles, he watches cut scenes.

Jade Empire: Main character with mysterious past must travel forward through a series of areas in The Empire and discover her ultimate destiny, be it for good or evil.

Splinter Cell: Terrorists plan world ending mischief. Sam travels from locale to locale in search of the head terrorist to save the world!

Shadow Hearts: Main character with mysterious past must travel forward through a series of areas in The Empire and discover his ultimate destiny, be it for good or evil.

Of course, I'm not really being fair. It would be just as easy to take five or fix books, or movies, and paint them with a broad snarky brush the way I have done here. In fact, I seem to remember that it's been said that there are only three plots in all of fiction (or science fiction). But I think the main point stands. Many games follow formulaic narrative structures. The good games are crafted so the specific details of the game situation are interesting enough to keep the player engaged.

Similarly, most games depend on fairly simple and repetitive play mechanics:

Resident Evil 4: Shuffle into an area, shoot the zombies, find the key to the door so you can shuffle into the next area. After some number of areas fight a boss, repeat.

Splinter Cell: Sneak sneak, whack someone over the head, sneak sneak.

Jade Empire: Talk to people to find out where the bad guys are. Fight bad guys. Talk to more people to get side quests. Fight boss. Fly to next area.

Again, the good games craft their gameplay mechanics so that there is some apparent variety, or the core mechanics are so fun that you don't care if the game is repetitive (e.g. the Halo 2 Bitchslap).

So what is my long-winded point? I think it is that a lot of games combine repetitive game mechanics with enough of a simple narrative to keep the player moving plot point to plot point. The good games distinguish themselves by making the details of the narrative interesting, and by crafting the gameplay to avoid annoyance and repetition. In other words, good games give you something fun to do and then provide you with a little snippet of plot as a Pavlovian reward. This keeps you moving forward in the game.

The Grumpy Gamer generally derides the role of "story" or what I'm calling "plot" in games. But I think that however weak these game narratives are in some absolute sense, people do play games to see the plot play out. So, while many in the gaming community see the cut scene to cut scene structure as annoyingly juvenile at best and as a stifling straightjacket at worst, I think that there are good reasons for games to work this way. When well used, familiar formulas give the player clues about how far along she is in the current area and to some extent in the game as a whole. This sense of pacing and context can be an important factor in keeping the player interested.

This is not to say that this is the only way to make a game interesting. Many interesting games have no plot at all (e.g. tetris). Some of the best online games have almost no structure at all, but playing wth or against other humans keeps you coming back. Counterstrike is the best example of this kind of game that I know of.

But, even given all this, I don't think we should lament the formulaic structure of the plot heavy single player games. I think we should embrace the ones that work and strive to discover new ways exploit the strengths of the medium in that context. Meanwhile, I'll be happy to shoot some more aliens to get to the next cut scene.

Posted by psu at 09:38 PM | Comments (1)

May 02, 2005

¡Taqueria Mi Mexico!

by peterb

In what is, I hope, another sign of Pittsburgh developing a thriving and growing Latin-American community, a new, authentic taqueria has opened in Squirrel Hill, on Murray Avenue near Hobart: Taqueria Mi Mexico. Today was the first day they were open the general public, so a group of us descended on it for lunch.

The summary: I will be eating lunch there every day for the rest of my life.

OK, I exaggerate. Taqueria Mi Mexico is nothing more than a decent taqueria with low prices and a wide selection of decently yummy tacos, tortas, and huevos. If we were in California, it probably wouldn't even be deserving of notice. It would be a decent taqueria swimming in a sea of decent taquerias. But this is Pittsburgh, where we have only ever had one decent Mexican place. Now we have two. That's a big deal.

And in my cosmology, cheap and unassuming eateries loom large.

I probably inherit this from my dad. I remember going out to lunch with him, looking for the Great American Hamburger. You never find that hamburger at nice restaurants. It moves around, frequenting bus terminals, train stations, greasy spoon diners, and the like. It's almost a truism that you can only ever find it at any given place once. Like a daffodil, the Great American Hamburger is ephemeral.

Taqueria Mi Mexico is not the equivalent of the Great American Hamburger, but it's pretty close. The tacos themselves are simple: soft corn tortillas, a little meat, some onion, and whatever salsa you choose to add. They've got a wide variety of interesting meats. In addition to what you'd expect (boiled pork, chorizo, etc.), there are also some more interesting choices: lengua (tongue), tripas (beef tripe), longaniza (a different sausage), cabeza (beef's head), and barbacoa (goat). They also have daily specials: today they had head cheese, and also cervellas.

So what separates them from Taco Loco on the South Side? Well, a few things. For one thing, they don't present themselves as a full Mexican restaurant. They're a taqueria. If you want rice and beans, go somewhere else. For another thing, the tacos are only $1.50 each. At that price, thanks to the famed Kielbasa-sandwich-at-Chiodo's principle, I'm willing to forgive a lot of mistakes.

But, fortunately, there aren't a lot of mistakes to forgive. On their first day of business, we got delicious tacos and interesting sodas in a nice, unpretentious atmosphere.

Let's get specific. Today, I tried the chorizo, the lengua, the barbacoa, and the tripas. The chorizo was spicy without being painful, and flavorful. It was probably the all-around favorite at our table. The lengua, which I was looking forward to, wasn't as good as what I've had at Taco Loco. In part, I think this is because it was a little too coarsely chopped, but it might have been cooked wrongly, also: it was a bit tough, which tongue shouldn't be. The barbacoa was enjoyable, but the real standout for me was the tripas. I'm not a huge fan of tripe, generally. It falls into that category of "foods I force myself to eat," except when it's in pho, where it somehow transcends itself. The tripe here was a revelation. Mostly, it tasted like the grill. That's not a bad thing. The consistency was like that of pan-fried calamari. Next time, I'm getting two of those.

They serve breakfast, but unfortunately for me open at 11 am. If I could swing by this place at 8 am and score some huevos con longaniza, I would be a very, very happy man (and also, let's be frank, probably dead of heart disease in short order).

Taqueria Mi Mexico. Know it. Love it. Go there soon. Tell them gracias for me.

Posted by peterb at 08:30 PM | Comments (7)

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