September 30, 2005

I Apologize to the Consumer Society

by psu

Earlier in this forum, I dumped on the general state of the shiny useless portable gaming device market. Against my better judgement, I picked up a PSP and Madden 06 anyway, on the theory that I could return them if they did in fact meet expectations and sort of suck.

I'm happy to report here that I must apologize to the consumer society, and that the PSP and Madden are generally better than I expected them to be.

First, Madden plays pretty much exactly like you would expect Madden to play on a device that is slightly slower than a PS2 and only has one analog stick. The press reports on this game have complained bitterly about "load times" to menu screens. I find the menus to be slightly sluggish, but not ludicrously so. I adjust by turning off the accelerated clock, so I have more time to set up between plays. Aside from a few stuttery transitions in situations like interceptions and fair catches, I have seen no performance problem that is much worse than the PS2 version of the game. Since these same press reports have seen no need to report these problems on the PS2, I can only assume that they didn't play the game on the PS2 before writing their reviews for that platform.

Just about everything you want has been crammed into Madden for the PSP. All of the minigames and strange modes I never play are there. All the plays in all the playbooks are there, as are most of the important pre-snap adjustments on offense and defense. A few "playmaker" adjustments are missing on defense, but the all important playmaker audibles on offense are there. The wireless multiplayer appears to work well too. You can also transfer data between the PSP and PS2 versions of the game. This seems to work, but I haven't experimented with it yet.

After the snap, the game seems to play faster than the console version, maybe because they didn't have to slow it down for the QB Eye of Sauron cone.

I also obtained Hot Shots Golf. This is a great colorful cartoony crazy golf game with a nice "kick-meter" swing mechanic instead of the more annoying analog stick mechanic. It plays a lot faster than Madden and is clearly better designed as a mobile game. Nothing like winning tokens with which to buy clothes. See, it's really an RPG.

As a device, the PSP works beautifully. Even my wife noted the quality and brightness of the screen. The analog stick, to my mind, is a much more useful control device than the touch screen that no one uses on the DS. The only thing that would be better is if there were two of them. From a gaming standpoint, two things stand out as important about the PSP:

1. Memory cards are big. I like this.

2. Instant sleep. This allows any game to be suspended at any time and then picked up again instantly. On the GBA, this function required support from the game in order to work. On the PSP this is not the case, which is a much better way to implement this. On the PSP, you are never at the mercy of some moronic game designer and his stupid save points to tell you when you get to go to bed. Bravo.

The battery life is not as good as a GBA, but we knew that. I find that charging the battery every night or every other night (depending on the play to sleep ratio), is good enough to keep the machine going without too much worry.

For now, Madden and Hot Shots should keep me happy. I'm looking forward to crazy Japanese-style RPGs in the future. The notion of an RPG without worrying about savepoints makes me happy.

Anyway, consumer society, all is forgiven. Don't be angry with me, I need some stuff at the Target tonight.

Posted by psu at 07:07 PM | Comments (1)

September 29, 2005

Klatsch Warfare

by peterb

One of the items in last Friday's snarky list of one-liners was: '"Fair Trade" coffee means that I pay more for the coffee beans, but then to make up for it they taste like crap.' This (partly) inspired fair-trade coffee fan Green LA Girl (there's only one?) to write a couple of articles on fair trade vs. taste, including an interesting conversation with a company that buys a lot of fair trade coffee, but has not bothered to seek certification themselves.

The summary of the point of view of the coffee company was essentially "the desire for fair trade does not trump our duty to provide quality coffee." I thought it was an interesting read, and I wanted to elaborate on this a little.

"Fair trade" coffee is doomed, as long as the business model is for it to be marketed directly at the individual coffee buyer.

"Fair Trade", as currently envisioned and marketed, concentrates solely on the value provided to the supplier rather than on that provided to the consumer. As long as this is true, it will remain little more than a sad footnote in the history of commerce. If the primary message behind the marketing of a product is "buy this because of a moral imperative," rather than "buy this because it tastes better" or "buy this because it's cheaper," that product is doomed.

Consider the organic movement. Those of us who buy organic milk don't spend twice as much on it than we do on non-organic milk because we think organic farmers are somehow more deserving than the non-organic cooperatives in, say, Vermont. We spend twice as much on it because, rightly or wrongly, we have been convinced that it tastes better and is better for us. Whereas fair trade coffee is marketed solely on the basis of where the money goes rather than on the basis of what the product is. That's a losing proposition.

Not only don't I particularly care where my money goes when I buy a cup of coffee, but even asking me to think about it is demanding far too much of me, especially before I've had my first cup of coffee of the day. It's a cup of coffee. This is not exactly a high-ticket item: it's not a car, or a house, or a major investment in a mutual fund. Fair trade coffee as marketed to the consumer is doomed to eternal marginalization, fundamentally, because it is asking the consumer to evaluate a nonsequiteur when making a trivial purchase. Merely having to think about where the money goes on a cup-by-cup basis increases the transaction cost on the part of the consumer. Consumers will respond by telling you, with their dollars, that they don't care.

The way I see it, there are exactly two ways for fair trade coffee to make inroads among anyone other than people who don't actually care about how their coffee tastes:

(1) Have "fair trade" also imply a guarantee of some minimal standard of taste and quality, in which case the consumer may actually care. Some people will point out that this isn't the "purpose" of "fair trade." So what? The "purpose" of Whole Foods is to make money, yet somehow they manage to convey the idea that they have other corporate goals as well. Alternatively...

(2) Market fair trade at the corporate level. If your fair trade coffee isn't going to taste better then the average consumer won't care at all. But you might convince a coffee shop that they care, because they can then pass that on to the consumer: "Hey, we only sell fair trade coffees, and here are the ones we recommend." This increases the impact of the transaction on the fair-traders, and simultaneously eliminates the psychic transaction cost to the consumer of choosing between fair-trade coffee that tastes ok or non-fair-trade coffee that tastes better. All the consumer has to decide is whether she or he likes the coffee shop.

Now, I can already hear the protests: "but there is fair trade coffee that is just as good as non-fair-trade coffee, at the same price!" To which the only reply is: poppycock. If fair trade coffee was as good as non-fair-trade coffee at the same price, then coffee shops would have to be insane to sell anything else.

We can analogize this to the decaf coffee market. Yes, caffeine is a flavor component of real coffee. Removing the caffeine changes the taste subtly. But the fact is that most decaf coffee tastes much worse than it needs to. Why? Because all decaffeination processes cost money. The good processes cost more. And consumers have demonstrated that they are unwilling to pay more for a cup of decaf coffee than for a cup of regular coffee. The nearly universal solution chosen by coffee roasters and packages is to use cheaper, lower quality beans for their decaf products, and present a lower quality (but "same customer price") product to the customer. I have seen no argument that convincingly explains why this same dynamic won't affect "fair-trade" coffee as well.

Another interesting analogy here, of course, is to vegan food, which is a phenomenon marketed solely at people who don't care if their food tastes good. There seems to be just enough of these people to make the market viable, with a number of firms competing for their dollars. But each vegan consumes much more food per capita than a coffee drinker drinks coffee. Are there enough people who are willing to purchase coffee solely on the basis of where the money goes to meet the needs of the business model?

For the sake of small coffee growers, I hope so. But as a consumer of the product, I suspect not.

Posted by peterb at 08:47 PM | Comments (5)

September 28, 2005

Bagging It

by psu

Bags are a problem.

The modern dork has a lot of crap to carry around and protect on a daily basis. You have your laptop, cell phone, big camera, small camera, maybe a lens, a flash, Gameboy, PSP, sunglasses, various papers, wallet and lots of small things that you don't really want in your pockets, but which you don't really want to leave at home either.

The ideal bag does not exist. The ideal bag carries all of the above in a space no larger than the inside of your pants pocket. Therefore, life is reduced to finding the optimal approximation of this ideal.

In my lifetime, I've spent all too many hours in pursuit of this bag. I've tried big bags, small bags, briefcases, messenger bags, canvas bags, camera bags, camera briefcases, camera backpacks, fanny packs, laptop backpacks, regular daypacks, vertical bags, horizontal bags, convertible bags, padded bags, unpadded bags, sling bags, diaper bags, and padded lunch boxes. I've used bags made by Eagle Creek, North Face, Domke, Timbuktu, Jansport, L.L. Bean, Lowe Pro, Tenba, Tamrac, and god knows who else.

Every single bag I ever used has had problems:

- The bag is too small.

- The bag is too big.

- The bag has too much padding.

- The bag has too little padding.

- The bag is too stiff

- The bag is too floppy.

- The bag falls apart.

- The bag has too many pockets.

- The bag has too few pockets.

- The bag has an "organizer" that organizes nothing that I own.

- The bag is too expensive so I've never tried it (leather bags are like this).

- The bag looks like it is made out of aluminum siding.

And so on. No bag seems to capture just the right set of features and leave out just the right set of stupid bugs.

The two bags I've used most recently were a Timbuk2 Commute laptop bag and a North Face laptop backpack. Both bags are a good size, and are easy to carry when either full or empty. But each has a lot of problems. The North Face bag has a useless front pocket because it is just one large cavernous black hole. Stuff goes in, never to be found again. The bag is also a bit thin and floppy, so you worry about all that stuff you just tossed into the endless front pocket. The padding on the straps is also too short.

The Timbuk2 is perfect. It can hold a laptop and everything else needed on a 8 hour flight to France while keeping it all easy to find in just the right number of inside pockets. It was also the right size to carry around most of the time, whether full or empty. Too bad the stitching is coming apart all over the bag, the velcro is already dead, and the shoulder strap is uncomfortable. All this after only a year or so of heavy use.

I think the ideal bag would be a backpack with a small shoulder bag inside. Or maybe a large shoulder bag with a backpack inside. Or maybe a large backpack that morphs into a small shoulder bag when all I want is to carry my laptop. I want an insert that isn't there until I want to pull it out of the bag and carry it around. I want nice shoulder straps that are curved and just the right size to not chafe, but turn into a messenger style strap when I want to carry my cameras around and get at them quickly. But no matter which mode the bag is in, I want it to look like a great beat up old leather satchel like you see in Paris.

I'm not asking for much, I think.

Posted by psu at 06:26 PM | Comments (20)

September 27, 2005


by psu

They had tomatillos at the farmer's market this weekend.

Tomatillos means salsa. So here you go.

Start with:

4-6 medium-sized tomatoes, cut up. It's also fun to use 2 or 3 regular tomatoes and 2 or 3 roma.
However many tomatoes you used, use the same number of tomatillos, or however many you like.
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded. 2 if you like it hotter,3 if you like it hotter than that
handful of cilantro leaves (1/4 cup)
juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon
4 scallions cut up, just the bottom half. You can also use sweeter white onions.

Pile all the stuff into a food processor. Run it until everything is in little pieces. pour into a strainer to leech off some of the water from the tomatoes and make the stuff thicker. Put in bowl. Let the bowl sit in the fridge for 15-20min so things get nice and mixed up.

Eat with chips. No baked chips allowed. Some day I'll learn how to make a cooked salsa.

Posted by psu at 07:31 PM | Comments (0)

September 24, 2005

The Taleggio Problem

by peterb

If only all my problems tasted this good.

I love Taleggio cheese, but here's my problem.

You want your Taleggio to be good and stinky, which means the paper on it should be soaked through and impossible to remove. But if the paper is impossible to remove, then you don't get to eat the rind. And I like eating the rind.

It's a conundrum. Am I the only person with this problem?

Perhaps I'm just being prissy. Maybe I should just use this as an excuse to eat more epoisses.

Posted by peterb at 05:10 PM | Comments (6)

September 23, 2005


by peterb

For Friday, it's a miscellaneous grab bag of opinions that will get you in trouble if you say them out loud in the wrong crowds.

  • I didn't dislike Super Mario Sunshine because it was "childish." I disliked it because it was "hideously boring."
  • No one, anywhere in the entire world wants to buy a TabletPC with their own money. Get over it. (Yes, Robert Scoble, I'm talking to you.)
  • Owning a Leica doesn't mean you're a good photographer. It just means you're a gullible one.
  • Every time I read some stupid rant by ESR or RMS, I get the urge to go buy a Microsoft product in an act of protest.
  • "Kosher" is a word used by Jewish people to refer to a complex series of processes and rituals designed to remove all flavor from food.
  • Free-software image-manipulation tool "The Gimp" sucks. And so does the name. People who claim to like it are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.
  • "Fair Trade" coffee means that I pay more for the coffee beans, but then to make up for it they taste like crap.
  • That video game you spent all that time playing in Junior High? The one you feel all nostalgic over and wish that games today were half as good? The one that was really deep and complex and kept you immersed for hours of gameplay? It sucked.
  • Also, in retrospect, your first boy and/or girlfriend wasn't that hot, either.
  • Anyone who thinks great software is mostly a matter of good technical engineering simply does not understand the real problems involved.
  • The Streets album A Grand Don't Come For Free is really, really, really, stunningly terrible. If you like it, you are a poseur.
  • In 20 years, Alanis Morissette will be known as our generation's Cyndi Lauper.
  • Whatever scripting language you are promoting this week sucks, unless it happens to be one I already know.
  • "Vegan" is from the Latin, meaning "can't cook".
  • Real developers ship. The corollary to this is that if you don't have deadlines, you're not a real developer.
  • Yep, that sure is one ugly baby.

Posted by peterb at 09:45 PM | Comments (13)

September 22, 2005

The Consumer Society Has Failed Me

by psu

I have a birthday coming up (no, I will not tell you when). And, I thought I had perfect timing. It's been a good nine months to a year since both the DS and the PSP launched, surely by now there would be something shiny enough to warrant a purchase. And yet it is not the case.

The PSP has the advantage coming in of matching my iPod Nano. The DS has the advantage of having a few more decent games. But ultimately they both fail. All that is here are puzzle games (ooo, Tetris but with shiny blocks), games I've already bought and not played (Advance Wars, excellent, but I never play it), games that will be coming soon (Mario and Luigi, anything for the PSP that isn't a PS2 port) and games that should be good, but appear to suck (Madden 06 for PSP).

I thought our great marketplace could not fail in this way. How is it that in 2005, I can have the cash and the desire for something shiny and small to game on and it not be available? What a monumental failure. I'll probably buy a PSP anyway. Maybe I can watch anime off a memory stick until there is a decent game.

Posted by psu at 11:45 PM | Comments (5)

September 21, 2005

Daffy at the Supermarket

by peterb

I have a sort of a hate/hate relationship with my local supermarket. The Giant Eagle closest to my house has this annoying habit: they figure out the products that I am buying, and then stop carrying them.

This wouldn't be half as annoying if they never had the products at all. But instead, they carry them for a while, I spend hundreds of dollars on them over the course of a few months, and then they take them away from me. It's like they're sticking their tongue out at me. "Your money isn't good enough."

Inexpensive but reasonably yummy sushi? GONE. Organic heavy cream? GONE. Whole Bell & Evans chickens? GONE. Ground lamb? GONE.

Sure, I can get these things at another supermarket. I can even get them at another Giant Eagle. It just galls me that the one closest to me is, as near as I can tell, engaged in a deliberate and thorough campaign of persecution against me.

Today, I stopped by to pick up a few essentials, and discovered that they are no longer carrying Wyman's frozen blueberries. I've probably bought about 2 bags of these a week for the past 2 years.

Of course, you realize, this means war.

Posted by peterb at 08:42 PM | Comments (6)

September 20, 2005

People on the Interweb Who Disagree with Me are Stupid

by psu

One of the banes of the modern "information age" is that one can easily find oneself reading someone else's misguided and obviously illogical view of important matters. When this happens to me, I don't think too hard about it. If they disagree with me, they must be stupid.

This is especially true in the area of gaming. I have only recently become morbidly obsessed with games, and as such I represent what the long term gamer hates most: the guy who likes mostly Halo and Madden. Where others see a depressing lack of innovation and risk-taking, I see a stunning series of games that have fabulous production values and excellently refined gameplay. To me, the current generation of console is the peak of the industry. It is the ultimate fruition of what so many people have been working so hard for so long to achieve: a gaming industry that is solidly in the mainstream with broad appeal across populations with diverse interests.

For example, I was in a convenience store in the middle of nowhere in Ohio this weekend. In the store, the cop turns to the cashier and said, "I find that Madden is easier to play if you have a mobile quarterback like Michael Vick." This isn't surprising. According to the NPD, Madden 06 did $100M of business in August, outselling the second biggest titles on the PS2 and Xbox by a factor of ten. This is the power of the mainstream.

To long time gamers, this mainstreaming represents a loss of their special subculture. All geek subcultures depend on maintaining a sort of elitism that separates the members of the club from clueless newbies. There are special handshakes to be learned, and obscure points of fact and protocol to be adhered to. When the culture becomes mainstream, these walls of elitism come down and the barbarians rush in. This causes much consternation. We saw it when AOL joined USENET. We saw it when Netscape allowed anyone with a modem and a mouse to start interacting with the Internet at large. And we are seeing it with games. More than anything, this generation of game console has brought the mainstream into contact with the fanboy. And so, the fanboy lashes out, and his wrath comes in many forms:

Games are too easy

One common hard core complaint is that games have become too easy. Unlimited continues, checkpoints, or, heaven forbid, allowing the player to save anywhere all makes games stupid and pointless because "there is no challenge." Here is a classic case of taking a mechanism (the game over screen) which was mostly designed to abuse you (make you spend more money) and turning it into a feature (oooh, the game is challenging and so satisfying). All things considered, I'd rather play a game that doesn't abuse me. Those tend to be more fun which is what we are all after here.

One of the best games I've played this year is Lego Star Wars. It's a fabulous game to play in short snippets, especially with children who have a short attention span. The production values are top notch and the dialog is better than that in any of the recent Star Wars films. But, the thing that makes the game great is this: no penalty for death. When your character "dies", he just falls apart into little lego pieces and then is instantly resurrected in the same spot, ready to go on. You lose some time and money, but that hardly matters. You quickly get back to the meat of the game, which is whacking Lego blocks with a light saber.

In fact, the only parts of the game that aren't fun are the pod races, where losing means you do the whole lap again. This is tedious and boring.

The lesson? Easy games are fun, when well designed. Of course, all the reviews for this game dissed it for the precise reason that it is great: the fact that it isn't all that hard. This is because people are stupid.

Games are all dumbed down

This complaint is the distant cousin of the "games are too easy" whining. The notion is that by streamlining gameplay that is pointless and tedious busywork, game designers are pandering to the clueless n00b masses and making a game less "deep" or less "realistic" when really they are making the game more fun. Targets of this complaint tend to be improved inventory mangement systems, refined combat systems that eliminate useless and complicated "depth" and "strategy", the removal of stupid puzzles (especially jumping puzzles) that are just filler, and most of all, streamlined character development systems that keep track of the stats for you rather than making you use Excel to do it.

You hear a lot about games being "dumbed down" for the console. The idea, I guess, is that a 900Mhz machine with 64MB of memory doesn't have enough raw power to play a sophisticated game. So, for example, a game like Knights of the Old Republic on the Xbox is really just the retarded little brother of a real game like Baldur's Gate 2 where you spend almost as much time dragging little weapons sprites from one character's bag to another than you do actually playing the game. All this because Bioware "dumbed the game down" by not making you worry about inventory slots. Why would anyone complain about the removal of such repetitive tedium when it adds so little to the game? Because people are stupid.

Games are all the same

The complaint here is that all games are just rehashes of the same four genres and the same 18 franchises that have been in production since most 18 to 34 year olds were in diapers. People like to complain about Madden a lot when this subject comes up. For some reason, they never also complain about Zelda or Mario Kart or Final Fantasy, all of which have been around almost as long, and whose recent incarnations have had about the same level of evolution in gameplay as Madden.

I think the truth here is that people like playing the same game over and over again with slightly different content, and game producers would have to be retarded not to take advantage of this.

At this point, as I am wont to do, I am going to pick on Zelda. I am going to pretend that I got to play a super sekrit early build of the next Zelda and I will describe to you what the game is like:

Apparently, a great darkness threatens the world, and a single hero must go on an epic journey to collect the pieces of a great magic artifact. These pieces are spread throughout the land in dungeons of various configurations. The hero will be able to wield a sword, and a boomerang, and a grappling hook (although the controls for the grappling hook will suck) and some other special items that I'm not allowed to describe, but which you will control using the X button and the triggers. There will also be fabulous key puzzles and various collection mini-quests, and a super-creative boss at the end of each dungeon that can only be defeated by a special item that you find in the dungeon.

Sound familiar? So I ask, why does Zelda get credit for innovation and not Madden? Because people are stupid.

The Next Generation All Sucks

Here we get complaints on several fronts. The main one is that the next-gen consoles are all just refinements of the current generation, with nothing really new to bring to the table except more compute power. I think this is true. I also think it's true that most of the hype around the new consoles has been pointless and boring. Each of the big three are playing their obvious strategies to their obvious strengths.

Sony is using shiny demos and the promise of the same huge first and third party game library to encourage people to ignore Microsoft. Microsoft is trying to use an early launch, a strong online service, and technical specs that are comparable to Sony to make people forget that the PS3 will have more playable games out of the box than will likely ever ship for the 360. Both companies hope that their new hardware will bring forth some briliiant new franchise: the next Halo or Grand Theft Auto, at which point they get to sit back and print money.

Nintendo, is, of course different. Nintendo is creating a TV remote control with a gyro in it and then declaiming that it will open up new vistas in innovative gameplay. In particular, it will let you play Zelda in a whole new way! But, that's probably unfair. The truth is that the controller is a natural strategy for Nintendo. First, it opens up the possibility that the next great new thing could come down the line for the Revolution. Second, it allows Nintendo to yet again turn the crank on Mario Party Kart Racing 89, this time with sword combat, and make a profit in the mean time. So, kudos to Nintendo for being different. But, let's not overstate what is going on here. Nintendo is not some beacon of goodness and light shining out into a dark land ruled by Sony and Microsoft. Nintendo does not have any great insight into the psyche of the game playing public. Nintendo is simply playing to their strengths rather than their weaknesses.

Ultimately I think all the kvetching over the next-gen hype machine seems misguided to me. Of course there won't be anything new on launch day. Launch day has never been the right time to buy a new console anyway. The right time to buy a console is 3 or 4 years after launch when the game library is mature. As a pure hardware play, consoles simply are not that interesting. The interesting jumps forward usually come in the software, when some brilliant developer figures out how to put together an experience that no one even considered possible. So until that happens, just sit back and play all those games you haven't finished yet. Buying a new box for no reason on launch day and then complaining that it's just more of the same is just stupid.

Posted by psu at 08:26 PM | Comments (6)

September 19, 2005

Silent Hill 3

by peterb

Here's another entry in the "I play games that are 3 years old because I'm a cheapskate" series.

I've tried to describe my experiences playing Silent Hill 3 a few times now. Each time, I sort of trail off and fail. This is, interestingly, not unlike my experiences trying to get into the game. Somehow, it fails to grab me in the way the first two games in the series did. Why is this?

It's tempting to say that the main reason is because it's just a simple rehash of the first two games. There's certainly a kernel of truth to that: when you sit down to a Silent Hill game, you know you'll experience a few things:

  • A creepy, deserted world populated by chimerae and monstrosities.
  • A radio that plays static when monsters are nearby.
  • Atmospheric and creepy lighting.
  • A world whose inhabitants, locale, and even architecture is disgusting, both fecal and fetal, deriving from the most unpleasant aspects of the flesh.
  • And, lastly, you know that you will be transported to a world inside the world, where the most profane and obscene elements of the game world will be transformed, industrialized, mechanized, and magnified.

Silent Hill 3 does indeed hew close to this pattern. But, really, that's what I was looking for when I bought the game. After thinking about it, I've identified some specific things about the game that made it fail to resonate with me. The reasons have less to do with how it followed the pattern, and more to do with some fundamental design decisions.

The first problem is the pacing. Both of the first two Silent Hill games — but particularly the second — were brutally slow in getting things going. Silent Hill 3 starts throwing dogs with split heads at you from practically the first moments of the game. And, almost without exception, it is the monsters that determine the pace and creepiness of the game. Compare this to Silent Hill 2, whose sense of the uncanny was driven largely by plot and character revelations. The sheer brilliance of Silent Hill 2 was that by the latter parts of the game, the zombies were the relaxing part. Some four-legged mannequin sex monster would appear and try to murder me, and I would breathe a sigh of relief. "Thank god!" I'd say to myself. "I now have a few minutes where I can just whack monsters with a baseball bat, instead of finding out about how the protagonist once drowned his dog after it saw him having sex with his cousin." (I fabricated that "plot revelation", but you get the idea.)

The monsters that eat us from the inside are scarier than the monsters that eat us from the outside. Silent Hill 3 has forgotten this.

Another aspect of design that differs in Silent Hill 3 is that the game is on rails, but the rails are visible. The ideal game design is one that channels you down a pathway, while convincing you that you have an infinite amount of choice. In the first two games of the series, you are wandering around a fog-filled town, making frequent forays into large creepy buildings. The games do channel you, but the aspect of running around the streets makes you feel like you have more choices than you actually do. In Silent Hill 3 you begin the game in a shopping mall. Then you go into a subway. Then you go into a sewer. Then in to another building. From a flowchart perspective, this isn't actually different from the previous games, but the psychological effect of spending the entire game in interior spaces is limiting. It does not work in the game's favor.

Most, though not all, of the creatures in the game feel uninspired. The first Boss monster in the game is a giant penis. There's no two ways about it. You walk your female avatar in to the center of a large room, and a giant penis pokes out of various holes and tries to eat you. Using visual and auditory clues, you try to determine which hole the giant penis is going to poke out of, so you can shoot the giant penis with your gun until it goes limp. I mean, give me a break. This is the first dramatic climax — pardon the expression — in the game. I saw this, and I knew what the rest of the game would be like. I said to myself "OK. They're just dialing it in now." The problem, again, isn't that they chose to make the reference. The problem is that they made the connection so obvious that it comes from outside rather than inside. And that, in my opinion, deadens the impact.

In some sense, one has to feel sorry for teams that are building sequels. If they create a product that is too close to the previous version, they're accused of "not innovating." If they create a product that diverges too far, they're accused of "not being true to the spirit" of the game. I'm trying to avoid either of those criticisms. I think that Silent Hill 3 is very much true to the spirit of the series. I simply think that they made some decisions that had a negative impact on the narrative of the game. And I wonder if they realized the import of those decisions when they made them.

I recently picked up Silent Hill 4. From just a few minutes playing it, I have a sense that they remembered that exploring the darkness within is more frightening then exploring the monster-filled city without.

There's never a map for the darkness inside you.

Posted by peterb at 11:14 PM | Comments (4)

September 16, 2005

Contest: Caption This Picture

by peterb

Today's entry is brought to you courtesy of Nintendo, who has given us all a first look at the controller for their upcoming home game console, the Revolution.

It's a pretty simple contest: caption this picture! If, in so captioning, you should happen to let slip what you think of the device, so much the better.

My entry:

From the company that brought you Virtual Boy.

(Really, once you see it "in action" it's not quite as bad as all that. But that was still my first reaction.)

Posted by peterb at 05:27 PM | Comments (13)

September 15, 2005

Data Crystal

by psu

In every long running Science Fiction franchise, there is the notion of a tiny device that carries within it the capacity to store a ludicrously large amount of data by present day standards. Normally, you'll see some character pull one of these out of his pocket, holding it up to shine in the light on the set, and then someone will pop it into a reader and the complete schematics for an entire planet will appear on the holographic screen. In Star Trek, these storage devices looked like little plastic cards. In Babylon 5, they were crystal shaped. The notion of the data crystal always intrigued me because I grew up storing data on large floppy disks or even larger disk pack type devices.

I think with the arrival of the new iPod nano, the age of the data crystal is here in force.

At the beginning of this year, when i got my iPod Shuffle, I thought it was ludicrously small for a device that could store 1GB of data. I decided to see if a device that small could fit the largest single musical work that the Western World has ever seen: The Wagner Ring. It took a while to run the experiment, but this week I finally determined that the whole thing will fit in the shuffle with more than 200MB left over if you encode it at 128Kbps.

Armed with this evidence, I was ready to declare to the world that the age of the data crystal had arrived.

Then, the iPod nano arrived. Holding one of these in your hand, you realize that even though it is barely larger than the Shuffle (it's wider, but thinner)

1. It holds four times as much data. In fact, I'd guess that the nano can store enough to hold the working set of most application developers who work on products of average size.

2. Oh my god, it shines as if lit by a thousand suns. I always figured the color screens were useless, but they sure are pretty.

The nano, then, is a shiny device barely the size of a credit card that I could use to carry my whole job around with me. It is the very definition of the data crystal. Sitting on your desk, it looks like a piece of sculpture, almost perfectly smooth with a black metallic sheen. Hook it up to your computer, and you have four times the storage that my graduate school provided for its entire computer science program back in 1990.

Of course, the iPod is not a data storage device. It is a music player. As such, the nano works just like a full sized iPod. It looks, feels and sounds exactly the same. Get the black one.

Posted by psu at 08:05 PM | Comments (9)

September 14, 2005

Wrong of Way

by peterb

It's part of my philosophy on this site to avoid the use of profanity. I'm making an exception today, as I relate an absolutely true verbal exchange I had driving in to work today.

Driving through Schenley Park, I passed a guy on a bicycle. This isn't unusual. It turns out that in my country, people sometimes ride bikes, and often they ride them in parks. The guy was riding in the right hand lane, with traffic, fairly close to the curb. Just as I get past him, I hear a blaaaaaaaaaaarn of a loud horn. I look around to see if I've killed someone, and behind me is a huge Expedition-sized SUV. He's honking at the biker. There is a completely empty lane to the SUV driver's left. I keep an eye on my rear-view mirror to watch the situation develop.

Sure enough, SUV Guy decides that Bike Guy has somehow offended him by existing. He gets in front of the biker, and proceeds to start weaving slowly in front of him, blocking his attempts to pass, sticking his hand out the window when Bike Guy gets close, yelling at him, and generally acting like a jerk.

This starts making me mad: the SUV Guy isn't just putting himself and Bike Guy in danger, he's putting the rest of us on the road at risk as well. I get up to the traffic light, which is red, and I can't take it anymore. I put on my hazards, get out of the car, and shout at the top of my lungs at SUV guy, who is about 50 feet away:

"Hey, asshole in the SUV — knock it off before I call the cops."

SUV guy looks up, surprised. He speeds up a little and pulls up next to me. Convinced that I just don't understand the situation, SUV guy decides to explain why he's acting like an asshole:

"He coulda killed someone! He's in the road!"

I gaped at him for a few seconds, before calmly explaining shouting at the top of my lungs:

"He's allowed to be in the road, you schmuck."

SUV guy drove away, yelling a parting shot straight out of Junior High School:

"Screw you, faggot!"

The biker glided past, gave me a nod, and went on his way. I got back in my car just as the light turned green.

Now, typically when you hear a story like this, it's from the perspective of a bike rider. Co-author psu is an avid rider, for example, and I'm sure he has many similar stories to tell. The wrinkle, in this case, is, well, I don't really like bike riding. I find it irritating and boring. I view wanting to ride a bike without an engine as a character flaw, akin to preferring white wine to red, or only wanting to eat at chain restaurants, or enjoying large weddings. In a world where according to a simple "us vs. them" philosophy I should have sided with the SUV guy, I did the right thing and stood up. For great justice!

So, bicyclists: you owe me one. The next time you see one of your compatriots run a red light, or nearly mow down a pedestrian, or thuggishly swing a bike lock at someone who they believe has committed some completely imaginary slight, call him on it. Don't let him get away with it just because he's a fellow bike rider. Stand up for what's right.

Call him an asshole. Do it for me.

Posted by peterb at 09:45 AM | Comments (6)

September 13, 2005

Required Complexity

by psu

I was generating a new movie for a friend of mine this weekend, and got reacquainted with Final Cut Pro. When I started using FInal Cut, I always found the clip logging interface to be baffling. It seemed to me that Final Cut should emulate iMovie, and find the shots itself rather than make me do it. Having now made a few short movies with the software, I see that there is an inner logic to the logging system, and it turns out to be a net win in the long run.

The particular example I have for you today is short and sweet. But the general principle that it illustrates is, I think, important. Here is what happened.

Between the last time I made a short video and this week, Apple has released a new version of Quicktime. So when it was time to generate the final movie file, I fussed around with the exporter a lot to try and figure out how to make a decent file that would not require everyone to download Quicktime 7 to watch the movie. I figured I would want to save them the hassle. But, at the end of the process, I encoded the movie using the new H.264 codec and was astounded by the results. What I found was that I could encode a movie at around 1/4 the bit-rate with equal or better overall picture quality. This meant that a 10MB file for five minutes of footage looked as good, or better, than a 40 or 50MB file did using MPEG-4. Maybe I just didn't know how to tweak the MPEG-4 settings, but there you go. After looking at the H.264 file, I decided that I now didn't care whether my friends and family had to download the new Quicktime.

So, what does this have to do with logging?

Well, I had a two year old video that I really like, and I found myself curious about what it would look like encoded at a higher quality. Of course, I had long deleted the raw material for this video from my disk. I only had the tapes and my original Final Cut document. Luckily, I had carefully logged all the clips that I used. So, instead of needing to capture the whole tape again and reconstruct all the edits all I did was:

1. Put the tape in the DV camera.

2. Open the Final Cut Document.

3. Select the sequence for the movie.

4. Hit capture.

5. Walk away and eat dinner.

When I came back, the entire thing was reconstructed as if by magic. I hit export, and a hour later the iMac had generated a new H.264 version of the movie.

The key thing here is that unlike more "friendly" software, like iMovie, Final Cut requires that you create meta-data on your raw footage. The actual disk file containing the footage is not that important, as long as you have the clip logged. This means that the interface is initially difficult to understand. You want to be working with your footage, but Final Cut is asking you to describe the footage instead. But, in the long run when you want to come back to a project and do something like re-encode it, you are suddenly very glad that you spent all that time writing meta-data.

Now, I'm sure that iMovie, or something else less complicated than Final Cut, could have handled the re-encoding task fairly easily. But it probably would have required that I store full resolution versions of all the clips in the final edit. The elegant aspect of Final Cut is that the project file is an comparatively compact representation of the clips and the edits that I made, and it does not require that I keep any media online at all. All of this is enabled by the seemingly complicated clip logging interface, because the clips form the basis of the representation of the movie. This representation also allows for uber-cool hacks like Offline-RT. Therefore, while the interface is complex, it enables a much more natural end to end workflow for many tasks, therefore the interface designers were correct in making this complexity explicit and encouraging the user to embrace it.

The interface design lesson is this: make your user interface as complex as is required, but no more so. In other words, if the task that you are modeling requires complexity, then the user interface should reflect that. But, the design should not layer on any more than is needed. The Final Cut logging interface is a good example of this. The interface is complex and intimidating on the front end, but turns out to be exactly what you want to do once you understand more about the process of putting together a movie. The initial complexity pays off in spades when you decide to come back to an old project, because it makes things that could be hard, like re-encoding a whole movie, almost trivial instead.

Excellent production tools do this well. The logging and capture features in Final Cut reflect the fact that the software is designed for professional production, where the same raw assets are used in many different ways. For me, it just means that it is really easy to regenerate my dinky little movies without needing to store all of the raw footage on disk. I just store my description, confident in the fact that Final Cut can reconstruct the movie for me.

My other favorite production tool is Photoshop. But, we'll leave the Photoshop example for later.

Posted by psu at 09:14 PM | Comments (0)

September 12, 2005

The Game Geek is Stumped

by peterb

Periodically I publish a little feature I call "Ask the Game Geek", where I'll take a vague description of a game that someone provided, and come up with the name. For example, I did this with the old Apple II games Sabotage and AWACS. And the Game Geek Quiz was one of our more popular articles here.

I have faith in this sort of process, because "stump the librarian" web sites have solved my problems before: for example, from the description "gothic-seeming story about a girl living in Britain who has some sisters and there's this evil doll", a clever internet-based librarian was able to correctly identify Ruth Arthur's A Candle In Her Room for me.

So here's a game that has me completely stumped. Help me figure out what it is, and you will win a prize, and my undying gratitude.

The game was one that I saw at a computer fair sometime around 1980 or 1981. So most of the machines at the fair were probably Apple ][+s or Commodore PETs, with a smattering of TRS-80s. I don't recall which platform the machine was on. I was watching someone play an adventure/dungeon sort of game. It had a first-person view of the dungeon — sort of like the dungeons in Ultima — but very sparse: no animation, of course. The player had a party of different characters with different professions. As he travelled through the dungeon he had to use his characters to solve different problems.

The one puzzle I specifically remember was that the way was blocked by some pipes that were spewing out hot steam (this was explained in text, not graphically). The player chose one of his characters, who was an acrobat, and had him throw his juggling balls into the pipes, which blocked the steam from coming out.

That's it. That's all I've got. A fragmentary memory from a computer fair before most of us had computers.

Any takers?

Posted by peterb at 08:51 PM | Comments (5)

September 09, 2005


by psu

The signs of late summer and early fall are everywhere. The weather is cooling off, if only marginally. The CMU and Pitt students are back in Oakland, turning the empty campuses into a sea of book bags, flip flops, t-shirts, shorts and sweat pants. And, in the food bin, the tomatoes are overflowing. Late summer always means tomatoes, and what better dish to make with a tomato than the BLT.

The key to the great BLT is in following four rules:

1. Crunchy thick bacon.

2. Good acidic tomatoes.

3. Decent bread.

4. The lettuce doesn't really matter.

I like to buy thick sliced Virginia bacon at the Giant Eagle and microwave it on a plate a few slices at a time. If you nuke it 4 to 5 minutes and then let it rest it gets just about the right texture.

Then, toast the bread, lay the bacon down, then the lettuce and one or two slices of tomato. I like mayonnaise on a BLT. Others disagree about this. I don't think there is a hard and fast rule.

Cut the sandwich in half and serve with fresh corn on the cob. There is no better meal for late summer than a BLT and corn.

Posted by psu at 09:01 PM | Comments (6)

September 08, 2005


by peterb

Here's a little theory called peterb's postulate of preoccupation: "For every possible topic on which one may wank, there will exist a community of wankers that wanks upon it in the most obsessive and self-absorbed way possible." And yes, I am well aware that this very weblog is, in fact, perhaps the paradigmatic example of obsessive and self-absorbed wanking over videogames. Believe me when I say that it hurts me more than it hurts you.

Today's subject is photo equipment wanking.

At least two times now, psu has made reference to the fact that I love to needle him by saying "Wow, your camera sure takes great pictures!" I do this because we both know it's not true, but also because I hear it a lot from people who are, innocently, trying to offer a compliment.

And that's OK. Most people don't really have any idea how a camera works, much less have a grounding in art or photography. They look at pictures, they see one they like, and they want to say something nice. There's no reason to get too upset when someone says this. But there are people who should know better, people who should know that the creation of art is almost entirely due to the vision and determination of the artist, and only peripherally a matter of tool, but who at some point focus on the minute differences between tools instead of on technique. "Camera X has .3 more megapixels than Camera Y! Look at the differences between these two photos of a test grid when I look at them in 1200 times normal size!" The best word I've heard for these people, which I wish I had coined, is "measurebators".

Most of us have been that person at one time or another. There's a sort of absentminded, very male pleasure one gets out of talking about which car is fastest, for example, while conveniently ignoring the fact that even if you were driving a Ferrari, Michael Schumacher could probably beat you by driving a Toyota Corolla. is full of these folks. I mean, check out this guy, who I can only assume is homeless and living under a bridge in LA with a laptop and wireless Internet, doing nothing but obsessively explaining to potential shoppers why they should buy Canon instead of Nikon digicams.

Recently, I decided to buy a digital SLR camera. So of course, I was inflicted with temporary measurebation sickness, worrying myself to death over the tiniest of details. "The Canon has a tiny bit more resolution! But the Nikon can sync the flash to a higher shutter speed? Whatever shall I do?"

Fortunately, I got better, because I remembered: for all intents and purposes, the consumer-grade digital SLRs are effectively indistinguishable. If you are a bad photographer, the features on the camera are not going to improve your composition, use of light, or timing. If you are a good photographer, for 99% of your work, the differences in interface are not going to make the difference between getting a shot and missing it. And if you're a mediocre photographer, like me, well, who the hell cares what sort of camera you want to spend too much money on?

I was deciding between the Nikon D70s and the Canon Digital Rebel XT. I went with the Rebel. I did this because I liked the JPEGs that I got out of the Canon more than the D70; they're a bit more saturated and the sharpness felt right. Of course, since now I'm only shooting in RAW, because otherwise psu will make disparaging remarks about the size of my penis, this turned out to be a silly reason. I liked the small size of the Rebel also, but not enough for that to be a deciding factor. It really doesn't matter. Effectively, whichever one of these cameras you buy, you will get nearly the exact same photos. If you believe otherwise, you are deceived.

For those of you who absolutely can't survive another day without me telling you what to buy, I will give you this handy chart. Obey its dictates and then you don't have to obsess over everything like I did.

Kneel before Zod and buy the camera I tell you to buy.
If you... ...then you should
already own Canon or Nikon lensesbuy the same brand as your lenses.
Like smaller camerasbuy the Rebel XT
Hate smaller camerasbuy the D70s
Will use flash oftenbuy the D70s
Will shoot in low light with no flashbuy the Rebel XT
Don't want to buy any extra lensesbuy the D70s
Will only ever shoot in JPEGbuy the Rebel XT
Don't know what you wantbuy whichever one is cheaper

One piece of advice that people give constantly that you'll notice is not on this chart is "you should visit a camera store and then buy whichever one feels better". I'm a bit of a contrarian in this: you can't possibly get the feel of a camera from just pawing it for a few minutes at a store, or even by borrowing one for a few days (I know: I tried). It just doesn't matter. Whichever one you get, you'll get used to it.

So there you go. Let me make perfectly clear, that in my opinion, the above chart is actually completely useless. If you're choosing between the Rebel XT and the Nikon D70s, unless you already have a set of lenses that fits one camera or the other, you should just flip a coin and buy one at random. You will save yourself a lot of time and second-guessing. If it turns out later that you don't like your choice, you can just blame the bad penny.

Or, if you really want, you can blame me.

Posted by peterb at 06:17 PM | Comments (3)

September 07, 2005

Madden NFL: Hour of the Phantom Dark Fantasy Kingdom Tactics

by psu

My addiction to Madden is well known to long time readers. It was one of the first games I bought for the new Xbox, and I always manage to find a reason to buy it again. Now, being an average dork, I am by no means a rabid football fan. I can't really name more than a few players on the rosters of my home team growing up (Patriots) or of my current locale (Steelers). I like to watch either of those teams kick ass in the playoffs, but otherwise I'm not really that interested. I have the same basic relationship with most of the major sports, and yet Madden is alone among sports games in holding my interest at all. I think this is because football only forms the shell of the real Madden game. The real Madden is actually a tactical RPG that happens to use a football-like simulation as a combat mechanic.

For those not familiar with the game, Madden provides a variety of game-play modes, including quick games, various mini-games to practice combat, er, football mechanics (passing, running, and so on), and a few practice modes, including things like the two minute drill and various situation games.

A single game in one of these modes lasts between two minutes (two minute drill) and maybe thirty to forty five minutes depending on how you set up the game clock for a full game. As such, each is similar to a medium to large combat encounter in a strategy game. The mechanics of the football game itself are also similar to strategy games. You and your opponent take turns picking offensive and defensive plays, and a large simulation engine figures out what happens. During any given play, the human player can control one or more players on their team. For example, you might make the running back run or the quarterback pass the ball. This gives you some control over your destiny, but since football is eleven players per side, the outcome is mostly determined by what happens in the simulation engine.

For example, if you are on defense, and you call a defensive play that is designed to stop the run offense of your opponent, and your opponent calls a long pass play instead, the majority of the time you will be screwed. It doesn't really matter how quick you are with the stick, the pass will go over the top of your defense and you will lose. The power of the simulator becomes especially clear on defense, where it is particularly difficult (at least for me) for the human player to make the little football avatar people do anything useful. It's almost always more effective to call a good play and then let your minions do the work.

The strategic emphasis is also clear when you observe that most of the new game-play features that have been added to the engine in the last few years all involve making adjustments at the line of scrimmage before the play even starts. As of Madden '06, you can call audibles to a completely different play, change the defensive assignments of every player on the field, change the pass routes of every receiver on the field, quickly flip the direction of the offense, send people in motion, adjust the positions of the defensive line, linebackers, and defensive backs, and change the blocking assignments of the offensive line, all with just a few flicks of the analog stick and the face buttons on the gamepad. All of these minute adjustments can make or break any given simulated play.

This, of course, does not really reflect the reality of the game of football. The Madden engine generally overemphasizes the strategic setup of the play rather than its later execution. It also does not allow the actions of a single player to have as much of an impact on the result as they might in a real game. Rather than go for strict realism, Madden brilliantly packages the semi-turn based military simulation aspect of football into a game that occasionally gives you the feeling of running a football team, but doesn't spend too much time trying to make you believe every single useless detail. Therefore, while not realistic, Madden is fun.

I think the final version of ESPN NFL2k reached a similar level of refinement with respect to its football game-play. But, I never spent enough time with that game to really become familiar with what you can do. I also never worked through the Franchise mode in NFL2k, which is where our attention turns next.

If the single game in Madden is like playing a single scenario in a strategy game (think one map of Advance Wars, for example), then the rest of the "tactical RPG" structure of the game is in the franchise mode. Here, the game allows the user to create a team and play that team through multiple simulated NFL seasons. As the manager of the team, you can either start with the roster of an actual team, or you can hold a draft and populate the initial rosters from the pool of currently active NFL players. Then, each year, you gain new players from a simulated college draft and you can also build your roster by trading players and signing free agents. Roster management is analogous to party management in a more traditional RPG.

But wait! There is more. The franchise mode also tracks the performance of your roster in the various practice modes, pre-season training camp, pre-season games, and regular season games. At fixed intervals, your players will move through a progression and get steadily better or worse depending on how well you play them. In some cases, the simulation engine picks the effect that this progression has on their character attributes. In other cases, you can play mini-games and win points to assign by yourself. The combination of the huge spreadsheet of stats and control over how those stats progress over time is apparently exactly what all the hard core CRPG players live for. Well, in Madden you can play through up to 30 seasons of simulated football goodness, and get the cool "I won the Super Bowl and I'm going to Disney Land" cut scene for your trouble. The only major RPG element missing from this mix is a pre-written linear narrative that has any structure besides that of a football season. But given what I've seen in RPG narratives, I don't think the game is really missing that much in this department either.

So, the next time you are feeling that T-or-SRPG urge, and the shelves of the local Gamestop are stocked with nothing but shooters, fear not. Just head to the bargain bin and pick up Madden 2004 or 2005 and go to it. You'll have to work pretty hard to find a better stats-based simulated RPG experience, in my humble opinion. The football part is fun too.

This entry is part of the September, 2005 Blogs of the Round Table. Please visit the Round Table's Main Hall for links to all entries.

Posted by psu at 09:12 PM | Comments (2)

September 06, 2005

Up and Coming

by peterb

Here are some of the articles currently in the works:

• Why Gladius is a superb game, and why it flopped.
• A Crazy Little Thing Called Beer
• "Biomass per penny"
• Measurebators
• End of the Summer: Indie Game Rundown
* Game demos that convinced me to not buy a game I was completely intent on purchasing.

Look for them in the coming weeks, and thanks for reading.

Posted by peterb at 09:43 PM | Comments (0)

September 02, 2005

Psychonauts Impressions

by psu

There was a lot of general drooling over this game, especially among the game designer worship crowd. Most original design in years, they said. A constantly creative tour de force, they said. So I picked up the game at nearly full price to offset how I had given in to the man to buy Madden. After a couple of hours of play, here is my microreview: I'd rather be playing Madden.

Let the tar and feathering begin.

Here are some of Psychonauts' major and minor sins.

Minor sin: Long opening cut scenes. At least they were funny.

Major sin: Save anywhere! Just kidding! No matter where you save, you get the last checkpoint. Ha ha sucker!

Minor sin: Camera is only marginally stupid. At least you can move it around when you need to, except when you can't.

Major sin: The controls feel like they are about a half second behind me, and the little avatar dude is just too slippery. He loves to fall off cliffs and jump at ropes and ledges that he should stick to but doesn't. On the up side, the penalty for death is pretty light. Overall, it's like all the jumping puzzles from God of War without any of the fun carnage and with controls that are much worse than say, Jak and Daxter circa 2002.

Minor sin: Repetitive music and dialog when you have to replay sections over and over again because of the crappy controls.

Major sin: A tutorial level that I played for more than an hour and a half and didn't finish. I must just suck. I sat on one platform and fell off for twenty minutes before I noticed that a tiny little fissure in the wall behind me meant that I could punch it. Wow, what a moron I am to miss that staggering visual clue.

Anyway, I guess I've tagged myself as a heathen who just doesn't recognize good game design, but I just can't deal with a platformer with controls that are this sloppy when I could be playing Ratchet and Clank and blowing shit up.

This one goes back in to Gamestop, which makes me sad, because I was digging the whole Nickelodeon Ren and Stimpy sort of visual look. I wish they had put a good control engine around it.

Posted by psu at 11:14 PM | Comments (10)

September 01, 2005

Wow Your Camera Takes Really Good Pictures

by psu

I like to think that in my time on Earth I have occasionally taken a good photograph. Once in a while I get a really nice one and show it to people, and if that person is Pete then he taunts me with that phrase hated by all photographers: Wow, you must have a really good camera.

Now, it's true that most photography dorks are also equipment nerds. Spend any time talking to most photographers, and the conversation will inevitably turn to gadgets, lenses, tripods and other miscellaneous items. I think in some sense taking pictures and buying things with which to take pictures go hand in hand. But, in this orgy of consumerism you have to keep one thing in mind: the camera has very little to do with the ultimate quality of the picture. The single good photograph comes from somewhere else.

As I have mentioned before, my two favorite books about photographic technique are Galen Rowell's Mountain Light and On Being a Photographer by David Hurn and Bill Jay. Each one of these books spends a lot of time discussing what goes into making a single excellent photograph, and I will try to summarize what they say here. My previous rumination on this subject was a more more general discussion about high level requirements for good photography. My focus here is different. The focus here is on the single excellent frame.

Assume that, following my previous instructions, you have found a nice subject and have situated yourself in good light. Here is what you do to get a single good picture:

Pick Your Frame

Composition is basically the act of cropping everything out of the viewfinder except that which is most important to conveying what you would like to show people about your subject. There are "rules" for composition that people will list. Compose pictures with your subject slightly off to the side. Get closer to your subject to reduce distractions in the foreground of the picture. Concentrate on details rather than trying to fill the frame with more information than the viewer can process. I think these guidelines are useful, but not while taking pictures. They are more useful to weed out the ones you shot badly.

When taking pictures, composition boils down to seeing something interesting and putting a good frame around it. If you take a lot of pictures, experiment a lot with different ways to frame things, and then critically evaluate what you get back and decide what you like and dislike, you can slowly learn what you like to point the camera at and how you like to frame a picture.

Focus and Exposure

Focus is important because you want the interesting part of your picture to be in focus and the boring parts to be blurry. Landscapes tend to want to be in focus from front to back, since the idea is to simulate the experience of standing on top of the mountain looking out into the distance. Pictures of people are different. You want the people to be in focus, but you don't want the background to distract. There is nothing worse than having a tree pop out of your mother's head like in some twisted horror movie.

What you want in focus also determines the aperture that you should use on the lens, since large apertures will blow out the background and while small apertures will keep more in focus. Having set the aperture, your light meter can now tell you what shutter speed you need for proper exposure. You will want to make sure that this shutter speed is high enough to not blur the picture due to either subject motion or your shaky hands. I have very shaky hands, so I always try to use short shutter speeds.

Push the Button

This is the last decision you have to make. Assuming everything else is set up perfectly, you have to choose when to hit the button. The world is not a static place, and what goes through your viewfinder is constantly changing. So, when taking pictures, the dynamic of the activity is to constantly evaluate what you see, and then refocus, reset exposure, or reframe the shot to come as close as possible to what you want to portray. This process is especially tricky if you have to juggle more than two or three variables at the same time. It doesn't really help to just hit the button and pray with the motor drive. You'll just get a lot of copies of the same bad picture.

But, this also doesn't mean that you should sit, paralyzed, waiting for the "perfect moment" and then taking a single frame or two. In general, all you will get this way is one or two bad pictures.

A good photographer has a sense for when a good picture opportunity is developing in front of the camera. When one senses a good situation, one should naturally hit the button a lot more than when nothing interesting is happening. I should say this again in more simple terms: when the going is good, you should take more pictures.

Developing this sense of when to hit the button is a matter of practice, experience, and knowledge of the subject. Using this sense well leads to the final important aspect of the single good picture.

Get Lucky

Suppose you are trying to take a picture of some interesting people walking down the street. The people are moving. The sun is low and coming in and out of clouds. Your distance from the people, and therefore the proper focus, is constantly changing. Finally, the background behind the people is in constant flux. In order for this picture to work out, all of these variables have to come together in one shining moment of perfect coordination, timing and inspiration on your part. This does not happen often. Therefore, the final aspect of the the good single picture is the luck you need to hit everything in the right place at the right time. Do not feel self-conscious about getting lucky. All good pictures have an element of luck to them. Feel thankful that you got a bit of it.

The mathematician Paul Erdös used to say that God has a book of theorems, and every once in a while he lets you have a peek at it. I think this is true of good photographs as well. You do the same things day in and day out to take pictures, but every once in a while it just all comes together, and you get to reach into the Book of Good Pictures and pull one out. I feel lucky to have grabbed a few for myself, and it's a lot of fun to go after more of them.

Posted by psu at 10:19 PM | Comments (1)

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