November 30, 2005

How To Upgrade Your Computer

by peterb

There seems to be a lot of confusion among people who should know better about how to upgrade one's computer. I am here to help. I'm pleased to present The Tea Leaves Guide to upgrading, which can help even the most ten-thumbed person improve their computing environment for the most reasonable cost, in just four easy steps.

Step 1: Open your old computer (you will probably need a Phillips' head screwdriver to do this), and remove any add-on cards, disk drives, RAM, and (if removable) CPUs that are currently in it.
Step 2: Take all that stuff and throw it away.
Step 3: Place the old computer on your back porch. Come springtime, the hollowed-out chassis will make a fine decorative planter.
Step 4: Go to Apple's or Dell's web site, depending on your tastes, and buy a new computer. Make sure, when selecting a machine, that you choose one that doesn't have "expansion slots," or any other features that you will never, ever, in a million years, use.

I want to be crystal clear that I am not joking. I've been buying computers (and upgrading old ones) for years. Upgrading, in the sense of "replacing a component to increase performance", is almost never worth it. I'll carve a very narrow exception for installing more memory — most machines people buy are woefully underprovisioned in terms of memory. Everything else is a complete waste of your time and money.

It works like this: you want to play a new game on your PC, but it requires a faster CPU than you have. So you say "Aha! I built my machine to be upgradable! I'll buy a new CPU!" But you can't just drop in a new CPU, because by the time you decide you need to upgrade, the CPU manufacturers have changed the pinout specs, so you need a new socket type. That means a new motherboard. If you buy that new motherboard, it probably has a different socket type for main memory. So you have to buy new RAM.

If you're lucky, the new motherboard you buy will have a new-different-better slot for video (ISA was supplanted by VESA, VESA was supplanted by PCI, PCI was supplanted by six varieties of AGP, none of which actually worked, and AGP is currently being supplanted by PCI Express. This process will continue until you die.) So your old video card has to go. If you're unlucky, the new motherboard will have the old type of slot, at which point you'll find out that not only is your existing videocard too slow, but you can't actually buy one powerful enough, that supports your ancient video bus, to make a difference. So then you have to buy a second new motherboard, and sell the original one on eBay. About the only component you'll be able to preserve from your original machine is the disk drive. New disk drives are effectively free. Nice going, Einstein.

In the end, you will end up spending about what it would cost you to buy a new machine from Dell to "upgrade." In addition, you'll have the aggravation of dealing with multiple vendors, none of whom ever answer their phones — God help you if one or more than one component fails — and the final product will be less stable, less polished, and louder than whatever you would get from a vendor that delivers finished product (yes, I'm aware that you can buy quiet components and soundproof boxes. Double your cost estimates if you plan on doing that, instead of just talking about it.) You'll have no warranty, there will be little Phillips-head screws laced all through your shag carpet, and when you try to run the game you wanted to play, it will either play too slow, or cause your machine to lock up.

Then, six months after you spent all that money on upgrading, you will give up and buy a new computer anyway.

I suspect I'm preaching to the converted here when I talk about upgrading in this way. But what isn't always obvious is the hidden cost, which is buying for upgradability, rather than buying to upgrade. By this I mean: you are choosing your Apple or Dell machine, and you decide to buy one over another because it is "upgradable." You hear people, especially on Slashdot, complaining about this in the Mac Mini or iMac, or some of the Shuttle PCs. "What if you want to add a CP/M card? Hahn? Hahhhn? Then you'll be sorry!" You give in to uncertainty, and instead of the nice tiny quiet little box you were thinking of, you buy the five-foot tall tower that is mostly air so that you can install a gigabit ethernet card.

Listen: four years later, you are going to throw that computer away, or give it to your nephew, or at best, if you are wankier than 99% of the people in the world, turn it into a mail server. You will never buy a CP/M card. You will never buy a gigabit ethernet card. You will never buy a video capture card. You will never install a SCSI card (or, if you do, I will laugh at you). You will never replace the hard drive (unless it fails). And in addition to the higher initial cost of the machine, you will have squandered space on a machine that is larger than it needed to be. You will have squandered sanity on a machine that is louder than it needed to be. And you will have squandered visual pleasure on a machine that is uglier than it needed to be.

Those three attributes — size, sound, and visual appeal — are worth quite a bit of money to most people. Computers tend to be viewed in utilitarian terms, but the age of the computer as a purely functional device is, thankfully, dead and gone forever.

And good riddance, too.

Posted by peterb at 06:51 PM | Comments (12)

November 29, 2005

It's Like They Didn't Even Play the Same Game

by psu

I wasn't going say anything more about Half-life 2 on the Xbox. Lower resolution graphics aside, I think the game brings all of what is good about Half-Life 2 to the console. You can enjoy the game without spending stupid amounts of money on a PC. This is good. But then I spied a review of the game in this month's Game Informer. As is often the case, when I read the text of the review I could only conclude that they must have played a different game.

Both reviews of the game in this month's issue spend column feet of text complaining about load times. The claim, I guess, is that the Xbox is such a crippled piece of crap that the glorious continuous maps of the PC original had to be broken up into bite sized chunks that take literally minutes to load as you move from one area to another. On the face of it, this claim is plausible. The Xbox has much less main memory than the PC, and much of the loading has to read data off of the DVD player, which is a slower device. But, here is the problem: I played the game on a PC in my office. A decent PC with a 2Ghz processor and 1GB of RAM. Here is why the Game Informer people are either dirty liars or stupid: the load times on the PC sucked.

In fact, Half-Life 2 on the PC came up with an extremely creative set of devices with which to waste my time and keep me from playing the game.

Here is what you do to install Half-Life 2 on a PC:

1. Put in CD 1.

2. Wait 10 minutes while the PC copies data to your hard disk.

3. Repeat for all 5 (or whatever) CDs

4. Now fire up the Steam application and spend half an hour talking to the server and making a new account.

5. Now wait as your computer reads every single file that it just copied all over again to decrypt it or some bullshit.

6. Finally, fire up the Steam application again and wait an hour while it looks for patches and downloads them.

At this point, you click on Half-life 2 from the Steam user interface, and your PC starts doing something. What, you cannot tell. In a minute or two, you get a loading screen for the game. A few minutes later, you get the splash screen for the game.

Total time between opening the first CD and playing the game: maybe an hour or two, depending on how slow your CD drive is.

Total time between launching the game and getting to play the game: 3 or 4 minutes.

Imagine if Excel took minutes to launch every time you fired it up. Behold the glorious future of online game delivery.

Compare this experience with loading Half-Life 2 on the Xbox:

1. Put disk in.

2. Game fires up, writes some stuff to the Xbox hard disk.

3. Start playing.

Total time: 5 minutes.

In addition, when you turn the game off and restart, the total time to get back to the main screen is about 30 seconds. Somehow, on this crippled Xbox, starting the game is easily four to five times faster than on the PC.

Now, it's true that there are a lot of mid-level loads. But they happen at exactly the same places that they did on the PC. In addition, the loading was no faster on the PC. Although loading from disk is faster, most of the resources were larger to support the "higher resolution" rendering that didn't really quite work right on the graphics card. But let's suppose that each load on the Xbox took 10 seconds longer than on my PC. There are about 15 chapters in the game, broken up into 6 or 7 areas per chapter, for a total of (say) 100 loads. Add in another 100 loads for where I go back to a saved game because i died. This makes for a total of about 200 loads in the 15 hours or so that I spent playing the game. Maybe I am being conservative, so let's call it 300 loads. In this case, the Xbox wasted about an extra hour of my time because of its "horrendous" load times.

Meanwhile, I burned two hours of non-play time just installing the PC version of the game. In addition, if I had played the game all the way through, I'd have to charge the PC game an extra few minutes of startup time every time I restarted the game, which I easily did 15 times with the Xbox. So, even with its "horrendously awful" load times, the Xbox version is easily two hours ahead.

Finally, I feel the need to point out that plenty of other games have had load times similar to the Xbox Half-Life 2, and I heard no complaining from Game Informer about them. Off the top of my head I can list: Riddick, which they called one of the best Xbox titles of all time, KOTOR, KOTOR 2, Jade Empire, and Deus Ex: Invisible War.

All in all, this makes me wonder what game the Game Informer people actually played. The game I played was a fabulous port of arguably the best shooter in recent memory. Everything that I remember from the PC game was there: the level design, the face animation, the gravity gun, the crappy vehicles, the seamless narrative, the voice acting and the beautiful spaces full of light and texture. As a bonus, it removed the stupidest feature of the PC version: Steam. It is almost as if Game Informer felt the need to write a review like this just to stoke the false flamewar that allegedly divides PC and console gaming. The last paragraph of the main review even alludes to this, suggesting that console gamers should "find their own" defining games. I guess you can't expect more from the people who thought Far Cry: Instincts had decent A.I.

Posted by psu at 08:25 PM | Comments (13)

November 28, 2005

He Tried So Hard

by peterb
Richard Burns

Richard Burns

I'd like to take a moment today to mourn the passing of Richard Burns, 2001 WRC Rally Champion. Diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2003, Burns passed away on Friday night. He was just 34 years old.

A section for memorials has been started on his web site. His family asks that in lieu of flowers, they would prefer donations to Cancer Research.

Posted by peterb at 08:12 PM | Comments (0)

November 22, 2005

You Can't Teach a New Wine Old Tricks

by peterb

You've got to hand it to the French. They have managed to turn what is traditionally a completely unimportant thing — the shipping of the season's first Beaujolais Nouveau — into an "event."

Beaujolais Nouveau is a cheap French wine that is meant to be drunk young. It is, along with straw-bottle Chianti, the definition of cheap wine. It's a good wine to have around, because even if you're not in the mood to drink Beaujolais Nouveau, you can usually put it to other uses, such as helping flush small items down your garbage disposal, or to bathe the cat in, or to degrease a bike chain.

I want to be crystal clear: there is nothing, nothing wrong with cheap wine. Cheap wine is good. I mock Beaujolais Nouveau because I love it. Or, loved it. Now because the start of the "season" is an "event," we live in a world where a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau costs more than $10. This, more than anything else, is a sign that the world we live in has gone utterly, completely, barking mad.

The worst thing about this, of course, is having the conversation with my wine merchant about this. "$12? For Beaujolais Nouveau?" "Oh, yes, sir. It's very good. This is going to fly off the shelves." "It's Beaujolais Nouveau. It's best used to rinse your teeth after brushing." "Well, it's very popular this year, sir."

To be fair, and to show that for once I am not just picking on the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board like I usually do, I will mention that this first batch (the "air shipment") is priced extravagantly pretty much everywhere. If your state allows in-state shipping, you can save a few dollars by buying at a large wholesaler, such as Sam's, or by using my personal favorite mail-order wine store, Pop's Wine.

Despite my disbelief over the price, I took one for the team and bought a bottle of the 2005 George Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau. For $12 a bottle. Damn it to hell.

My capsule review is: that was $12 I will never see again. If there is any justice in the world, you will all feel sorry for me and click madly on the sponsored Google Links to try to help me recover at least some of that money. And also to compensate me for my pain and suffering.

The pain and suffering is not because the wine itself is somehow inherently terrible — it's really neither better nor worse than your average Beaujolais Nouveau — but for the opportunity cost that spending $12 on a bottle of this grape juice engenders. $12 will get you a fine cheap Rosemount Shiraz. Or a low-end Ruffino Chianti. Or three bottles of Charles Shaw, a.k.a. "Two Buck Chuck". All of which are better than this wine.

The color is the grape-juicey purple one expects from a wine of this type. The aroma is fruity and seems extremely tannic. On hitting your tongue, though, those fruit and tannins aren't actually there. You don't taste either. What you taste, instead, is just an in-your-face — and unpleasant — acidity. The wine is slightly effervescent, which is fine, but somewhat attenuated and chemical, which is not. There's no finish to the wine at all. I don't mean a "quick finish" or a "short tail," I mean none whatsoever. The wine gets to the back of your mouth and sort of teleports down to your stomach, leaving you wondering what the hell just happened.

So it's not a very pleasant wine to drink by itself, but then to make up for that, it doesn't match well with food either.

If this wine cost 5 dollars a bottle, you would shrug your shoulders and say "Hey. It's cheap wine. Whaddya want? Pour me another glass." But it didn't cost 5 dollars a bottle. It cost more than a number of perfectly drinky varietals. The wine doesn't leave a bitter taste in your mouth — it doesn't leave any taste in your mouth — but this knowledge does.

Did I mention you could buy 3 (or more, if you're lucky) bottles of Two Buck Chuck for the price of one bottle of 2005 George Duboeuf "air shipment" Beaujolais Nouveau? I'm just checking.

To add injury to insult, the wine left me with a hangover that made me feel like Robert Downey Jr. on his first day of rehab. I had another glass tonight because, apparently, I hate life, and the headache is back. Perhaps it is just my conscience, causing me psychic pain because I paid $12 for a $5 bottle of a wine.

In conclusion, don't buy this wine. Unless you are someone that I despise, in which case, Ó votre santÚ! Buy an entire case!

Posted by peterb at 07:50 PM | Comments (10)

November 21, 2005

Bj÷rky Had a Little Lamb

by peterb

or, "Dear Whole Foods: Stop Pimping Iceland"

Being a middle class, white, liberal, urban-dwelling type with enough disposable income that I don't mind paying unreasonable prices for foods that are only moderately better than I can find elsewhere, I sometimes shop at Whole Foods.

Lately, Whole Foods has been pimping for Iceland. What's behind this? And more importantly, how can I get them to stop?

I first noticed this at the cheese counter. My friend works at the cheese counter, and I've learned to patiently bear it while he explains to me that I should be glad to pay $20/pound for the same Roquefort Abeille I can get at Penn Mac for $10/pound because Whole Foods is worker-owned, and is therefore a better place to spend my money. Accepting the patronizing way in which the Whole Foods Corporation (NASDAQNM:WFMI) tarts up their employment practices into a selling point is just part of the whole experience. You let it wash over you, and you go on. The cheese counter at Whole Foods has a lot to recommend it once you get past price, including a great selection, knowledgable staff, and an unending supply of samples.

My friend recommended a few Icelandic cheeses (the best of the batch was H÷f­ingi, a soft cow's milk cheese not unlike a mild Brie). And he gave me a brochure to go along with it.

The brochure was written by Whole Foods, and had lots of information about Icelandic cheese, where by "information" I mean "marketing." The words "pure" and "unspoiled" appeared at least three times in each paragraph. (Incidentally, the CIA World Factbook entry for Iceland lists "water pollution from fertilizer runoff; inadequate wastewater treatment" as among their current environmental issues. But not to worry: surely it is pure and unspoiled fertilizer runoff.)

I put this brochure away and promptly forgot about it. There is, after all, nothing too unusual about featuring one country or another at a cheese counter. Cheese is an extremely varietal sort of food, and if you don't try cheeses from diverse places in the world, you're missing out on a lot.

The next time I was in Whole Foods, I encountered the lamb from Iceland. Here's a sample of their marketing:

Have you tried our Icelandic Lamb? Only available at Whole Foods Market, Icelandic Lamb is bred and raised in Iceland where they are free to roam the grassy hills and breathe pristine air.

Not only that, but each of the lambs is sung a beautiful lullabye as it is lovingly, gently slaughtered in an utterly cruelty-free environment. All of this can be yours for the low, low, low price of $18.99/pound.

Lamb. For $18.99/pound. Somewhere in Austin, Texas, a Whole Foods executive is laughing until he wets his pants.

It's not specifically the price that bothers me here. It's the contradiction inherent in the Whole Foods concept: a store that gives lip service to the "buy locally, support sustainable farming" movement, yet which flies in goods from around the world to supplant local alternatives when it suits their margin or marketing needs.

This weekend, at the last Farmer's Market in the Strip District, I bought some grass-fed lamb from Pucker Brush Farm, a farm near Indiana, PA. Their lamb is grass-fed; it tasted earthy, and herbal, and savoury, and delicious. It cost less than half what the Icelandic lamb at Whole Foods would have cost me. It was fresher, and of better quality, and the money went straight to a farmer, and there are no doubts or worries about the supply chain.

They're also pushing Skyr ("It's made with pro-biotic cultures passed down generation to generation in Iceland"). Skyr is Icelandic for "Cottage Cheese That Costs More Than The Stuff You Probably Should Have Bought" My assumption is that what has happened here is that Whole Foods has signed an agreement with the Icelandic equivalent of Archer-Daniels Midland. They get products at cut rates, they get to pimp the Icelandic connection for marketing juice (Pure! Unspoiled! Pristine! Virginal!), and they get higher margins.

I'm glad Whole Foods is here. It provides a great alternative to our local megachains, and they carry a number of products that I want in one convenient location. But in some ways, I find it more tiring to shop there, particularly when I wander near one of their obvious profit centers, such as the meat counter. I don't expect them to change their way of doing business radically, or to suddenly stop selling things that obviously make them a lot of money.

But please. Enough with Iceland. I'm begging you.

Additional Resources

November 18, 2005

The Mis-Design of Everyday Things

by psu

We in the computer business tend to have a complex about ease of use. "Computers are so powerful and yet so arcane" is a constant refrain in our lives. Well, I am here to say that I don't think that we should feel too bad. I have been investigating the world of HDTV because we are thinking about buying a big TV for Christmas. Compared to what you have to go through to get a decently usable TV, setting up a home wireless network is like falling off a log.

Let's review. Here's what you do to set up a home network:

1. Buy DSL or Cable high speed network from someone.

2. Plug Airport base-station into modem.

3. Run the admin program to change the password on the basestation. Make it configure its network connection automatically from the cable modem.

4. Turn everything on.

5. Start surfing.

At this point, all the laptops in the house will just connect to the basestation and have high speed access to a glorious world of automatic package tracking. You turn on the laptop and it does a magic dance with the base-station and the data just flows.

By comparison, setting up my home receiver was much more complicated, involving almost a dozen runs of audio and video and power cables. Furthermore, after all that work, it's still a lot of work to play Xbox. Here's what I do (assuming the TV and receiver are on):

1. Turn the big knob on the receiver until the letters say "XBOX" on the main display.

2. Turn on the Xbox

3. Put in Halo.

At this point, the video and audio for the game come out of the TV and the speakers hooked up to the receiver. I only have two speakers, no surround sound.

Now let's consider throwing an HDTV and a single HD source into this mix. First, rather than only needing to understand one interconnect, suddenly there are three:

1. Composite/S-Video

2. HDMI (huh?)

3. Component Video

Worse, most of the receivers in the world do not allow you to easily mix and match devices of different types. I only have devices of type (1) in my house right now. Also, my receiver can only handle either S-Video or Composite sources. So when I get my Xbox 360, my whole user experience above falls apart. I have to run the audio from the 360 to the receiver, and the video directly to the new TV. To play a game I would now have to do this:

1. Turn the knob to "Xbox 360" on the receiver.

2. Pick up the TV remote and hit some button I can't find until the TV says something like "Component Video 3", which I remember is where I connected the Xbox 360.

3. Turn on the Xbox 360.

4. Put in Madden 360.

It turns out that the extra few steps here are actually enough to keep anyone else in the house from being able to run the TV. This is because no one but a crazy techical dork can remember that "Component Video 3" is the Xbox and "Video 7" is the normal video from the receiver. TV manufacturers don't seem to realize this, since every big new TV comes with 15 inputs of various types, none of which will ever be used.

I also looked into what it would take to fix this issue at the receiver end. Surely I could find a receiver that gives me the "simplicity" that I currently enjoy. Reasonably priced receivers do not allow you to run a composite input to a component output and vice versa. This means you have to run two different kinds of cable between the receiver and the TV. And, after going to all that trouble, you get the same shitty interface described above.

To do better than this, It turns out that what I would need is a $500 receiver that can automatically route and up-convert composite video to component video or HDMI (huh?). In other words, to get a simple video routing device, I need to buy something that costs as much as an Xbox 360, and then I have to spend an entire afternoon rewiring everything behind it. The truly mind boggling thing is that even at that price, you can still find receivers that do not allow you to program custom source names. All that money, and they can't even keep 2K of persistent memory around to store a little bit of ASCII.

Finally, one has to realize that even my "easy" scenario for turning on the TV is really too complicated. Here is how it should really work:

1. Turn on Xbox. Receiver notices that the Xbox is on and sets the input device correctly.

2. Put in Halo 3.

I think we can all agree this scenario is a drug-induced fantasy world. And yet, and yet, this is exactly what happens with my wireless network. I turn on my laptop, and everything just hooks right up automatically. So, computer geeks rejoice! You have managed to build an end to end system whose user experience is signitifcantly easier than turning on a modern television.

Additional Note: Don't tell me to buy a universal remote control. The universal remote is just an admission that the industry can't build the right thing. All of this stuff should just work. Anything less is unacceptable.

Posted by psu at 07:37 PM | Comments (17)

November 17, 2005

What the Internet is For

by psu

In the distant past, around ten years ago, there was a hallowed time when the Internet both defined and demonstrated its true purpose. Back then, there were vendors on the net, like Amazon.com, from whom you could order almost anything and have it delivered to your house just a day or two later for a small fee. The choices offered by these vendors was wide and deep, and the service that they provides was competent and timely.

Of course, time and money will eventually destroy all good things, and the net is no different.

This was on my mind because my morning surfing took me to a long rant by someone named Doc about how the net is being destroyed by all of the usual suspects: the monied interests who don't understand what the net is for or what the net should be. I think there are a lot of problems with the points of view expressed in the essay, especially when they drip with a palpable sense of entitlement, or with a desire to claim sole credit for building something that was actually the result of the efforts of a huge number of people, many of whom did not even (gasp!) use open source software.

These small issues do not concern me. They are merely the result of a nearly fatal case of latent object syndrome. The real Internet did not turn out how he believes to have envisioned it back in the day. This fact still apparently makes him bitter. What really concerns me is how he and so many others do not know what the net is really for. The Internet, after all, really has only one purpose. So as a public service, here, on this humble web site, I will let you in on the big secret.

The Internet exists for one thing: to tell me where, out of all the possible places on the surface of this great planet of ours, the package that I just ordered is currently sitting in a UPS truck, and when it will be delivered to me.

Of course, this core function is under daily attack by "super-saver" shipping programs and "free shipping" discounts that end up sending you your stuff via some cut-rate outfit that does not have online tracking. Worse, more and more of our items are being sent by US Mail, which means it is both slow and not trackable. With the bursting of the e-commerce bubble, and the resulting concerns about trivial things like actual profit, even the former gods of online commerce like Amazon have fallen in with the forces of darkness that would impose this great source of anxiety upon us. What was unthinkable just a few short years ago has now come to pass on our network: you can buy from Amazon and not know where your stuff is until it reaches your door.

Hopefully with this singular truth in mind, you will be able to return to your lives and fight for the glorious future of the network, and keep it doing what it was built to do. Hopefully, in the future, no one have to endure shipping via the USPS, or suffer through their daily lives with no idea where their packages are. Truly, the net has the potential to usher forth such a grand time of enlightenment and happiness, if we are willing to work for it.

Posted by psu at 07:52 PM | Comments (3)

November 16, 2005

Half-Life 2 and Other Matters

by psu

Half-Life 2 for the Xbox hits this week. So, two years after the fact, one of the original reasons I gave to myself for buying the Xbox has finally come to pass. This means that I managed to get the game without buying a PC. On the downside, I already bought the PC version of the game, though I didn't play it all the way through (the only PC I had at the time was at work). In addition, instead of a PC, I bought an Xbox, a PS2, a Gamecube, a GBA, a PSP and a few dozen games, all of which probably add up to what a high end PC would have cost. But I got so much more value this way.

Of course, by value I really mean a horrible debilitating additiction that infects my every waking hour.

I should have seen it coming. I had consciously avoided computer games for most of my life because I knew that if my in-born OCD did kick in I would end up in a black hole of suffering and despair from which I would never escape. This is in fact what happened, but it hasn't been all that bad. The consoles and the games that run on them have changed in subtle ways to appeal to an older audience with more money than time. Games these days are playable without requiring 90 hours of your time in 8 or 16 hour blocks. I see this as a positive trend, and one that should continue as time goes on.

The fact that games are interruptible is their most appealing trait at this time in my life, when I am more often interrupted. So I guess it was inevitable that I'd end up becoming one of "them". Of course, I've had my share of annoyances, shameful neuroses, bizarre discoveries, and strange injuries. So, while it has not been completely smooth, my trip into the game world has mostly been fun. As we move into the next generation, I can only hope that the good stuff gets better, and the stupid stuff (hello, savepoints) slowly dies away. For now, I guess I'll go level some more and then try to kill that Boss in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne again (I know, you told me not to buy it, but I did).

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

November 15, 2005

Dear Microsoft Games Employees

by peterb

I know there are one or two employees of MS's Xbox division who read (and hopefully enjoy) Tea Leaves, so allow me to take a moment to say:

Please find one of your mar-com people and get them to loan me an Xbox 360 and some games (Kameo?) so I can review them.

Thanks!

PS: And as long as I'm asking, how about a pony, too?

Posted by peterb at 05:18 PM | Comments (7)

November 14, 2005

How to Drink Beer

by peterb

Of all the foods that are acquired tastes, beer may be the most maligned and misunderstood. There are few foods for which you will readily find people who will boast, proudly, "Oh, I never drink beer. That stuff tastes terrible."

The problem with this statement is that beer is perhaps one of the most complex drinks known to man. Not liking beer qua beer is sort of like saying you don't like "vegetables." So my assumption is that anyone who says they don't like beer (as opposed to "I don't like this particular beer") just doesn't know how to drink it.

Today, I'm going to teach you how to drink beer. That means I'm going to teach you how to find a beer that you think tastes delicious.

Beer Goggles

I came to beer late. Growing up, I had only ever tasted standard American beers (ironically labeled "premium"), which are barely drinkable. The position of beer as serving sort of "check your pride at the door" philtre at college frat parties likewise made me look down my nose at it. It was at some point after college that a friend ordered me a beer, I tasted it, and said "Hey, wait a second. This can't be beer. It tastes good."

I spent several years completely obsessed with beer. I brewed my own, some of it pretty good, and spent lots of time seeking out interesting beers to drink.

The typical way to give advice on beer is to recommend specific brands or styles. But that doesn't really help you if you don't know enough about beer to understand why one might taste good to you, or why another tastes bad. Instead, I'm going to talk about the major flavor components of beer, and then I'm going to recommend specific beers that exemplify those tastes. Once you understand what you're drinking and how to describe it, finding something you actually enjoy is easy.

What You Need

First, you need a local bar with a decent selection of domestic and imported beers. Because I'm an effete intellectual snob, I will assert without proof that European beers are generally better than their American equivalents. There are plenty of good American beers, but the market for beer is so crowded that your chances of finding a classic, if you don't know what you like, are lower. So you want a place with a good selection of imports, and at least some beers on draft. The more beers they have on draft, the better.

Second, you want a talkative bartender who likes beer. Tell her what you're doing. Tell her you're on a quest to find a beer that tastes good. If she's a beer geek (and many of them are), you have probably just put yourself in a good position for a night drinking lots of free samples. Ask for what's fresh — stale beer is bad beer.

Lastly, you need some free time. Assuming you've found your talkative bartender, do him or her a favor and don't show up in the middle of the friday night crush and expect to be pampered. Show up in the late afternoon or early evening, before it gets busy. And tip well.

Malt

The single most important flavor component of beer is malt. It is also the most expensive component. Not coincidentally, the common American beers you find — Budweiser, Coors, and so on — have very little malt in them. This is part of the reason that they taste terrible.

When I say "malt", I really mean "malt sugars." Malt does not ferment very cleanly. When the yeast begin their work of converting sugars into alcohol, they can only convert some of the malt. This leaves a very distinctive residual sweetness. If you've ever had a malted milkshake (or malt balls, for that matter), you have some idea of what this tastes like. So let's say we have two unfermented beers, and one of them has more malt sugars in it than the other. When they ferment, we can know a few things about how the resulting beers will compare to each other. The beer that had more malt sugar will have a higher alcohol content. It will have more body, or mouthfeel — sugar is thick — and a deeper color. And it will be sweeter, or maltier.

Most other sugars are converted more efficiently by yeast than is malt. This means that they produce more alcohol, which means you need less of those sugars to produce a beer of a specific alcohol level, which means it will be cheaper to make. It also means that the beers have less body, and less flavor. In the worst cases, we can say these beers taste "attenuated." The best you can hope for in a standard mass-market American beer made with corn or rice is that it not immediately strike you dead with its horribleness.

So the first homework assignment is to go try a beer that is "malty", without a strong balancing hoppiness (more on hops in a bit). This time of year, you can still find some German Oktoberfest beers. Pschorr-Braü is a good starting point, as is the Ayinger Oktoberfest. If you're reading this article in the Spring, look for a Märzen, or a Maibock. If you're at a place that has a good Belgian beer selection, some of the Abbey ales are pleasantly malty (I particularly like the Westmalle Double or Triple). On the extremely sweet side, McEwan's Scotch Ale would be a good choice.

As you drink these beers, make a note of how they feel in your mouth, how they taste when they are on the tip of your tongue, and the aroma. When someone says a beer is "malty," now you'll know what they mean.

Hops

So you've tried a malty beer, and you liked it, because everyone does. Why, the question arises, does anyone drink anything else?

The reason is balance. Too much sweetness, by itself, is cloying. Brewers use hops, a small bitter flowering plant, to provide a counterbalancing aroma and taste to beer. The basic idea is not unlike what you would find in a good wine. As you drink, the malty beer washes over your tongue, bringing you body and sweetness. As you swallow, the hops hit the bitter taste buds in the back of your mouth, serving as a tonic, leaving (hopefully) a refreshing taste.

You hate beer — if you do hate beer — because most of the beers you've tried are unbalanced. All you can taste is hops. And with nothing to balance them, hops taste nasty.

The homework assignment for this section is to go drink some Pilsner Urquell, a Czech beer that should be fairly easy to find. This is the beer that all modern American beers are patterned on, in a sort of cruel, dadaist, mocking way. Think of Pilsner Urquell as Superman, and Budweiser as Bizarro-Superman, and you've got the idea. This beer will probably not be to your taste, if you're new to beer, but we're drinking it to find out about hops. As the beer goes down the back of your throat, you'll taste a somewhat spicy, somewhat floral bitterness. That's the Saaz hops, a specific variety native to Europe. Saaz is particularly subtle and distinctive, which is why I'm recommending this one to start. Most other varieties of hops will have a more aggressive, harsher, bitter bite, and (in my opinion) a slightly less interesting taste. But since hops in beer is meant to serve as a counterpoint to the malt, and not as the star, that's OK.

Victory Brewing Company, from Downington Pennsylvania, brews a beer called "Hop Devil," an extremely bitter India Pale Ale. I wouldn't recommend this to beginners, but if you decide you like the hops in Pilsner Urquell and want to see just about how bitter a beer can be, that's the one to try.

Other Common Tastes

Most of the beers I've mentioned so far are bottom-fermented beers, or lagers. Ales are beers made with top-fermenting yeast. They are generally fermented at a higher temperature. As a result, they don't taste as "clean" as lagers. When fermenting at a higher temperature, the yeast will produce more byproducts than just alcohol. The most important, for our purposes, are esters. The esters commonly found in beer produce aromas that can be described as fruity — smelling of apples, bananas, or orange. The effects of esters in beer are subtle, and hard to categorize. The homework assignment for this section is to try a Whitbread Ale. Make sure you don't drink it ice-cold. Esters are more noticeable as you approach room temperature. Be sure to smell as well as taste it.

A few beers can be described as phenolic tasting of diacetyl. These have a butterscotch-like aroma that in excess would be considered an off-taste, but in moderation can be pleasant. Samuel Smith's Pale Ale is the best example of this that I know.

Beers To Not Try (At First)

Here is a partial list of styles of beers that have complex tastes that will make it harder for you to figure out the relationship between malt and hops. You might consider avoiding these when just starting out. If I were you, I'd avoid stouts (which generally taste primarily of roasted barley), porters (which taste of burnt "chocolate" malt), rauchbiers (which taste like smoke), wheat beers (slight clove overtones), and any beer with more than one adjective attached to the name. If you must drink Guinness, at least get it on tap. The stuff in the bottle is not fit for human consumption.

I'll recommend a partial exemption for one particular type of fruit beer. Many beers have fruit flavors added to them. These are all for girls. I drink them anyway, but I drink them knowing they are for girls. Most beers with fruit in them are terrible, and should be avoided as a matter of course. However, the Belgian fruit-flavored lambics are quite good. Kriek, flavored with sour cherries, is incredibly fabulous and absolutely worth drinking. Some people prefer the raspberry-flavored framboise to kriek. These people are apostates, and must be destroyed.

Once you've found a beer that exemplifies the malt/hops balance that you like, you can (and should) branch out into these other varieties. Variety, after all, is the spice of life.

Add it Up

Hopefully, your homework assignments for this article will give you some hope that finding beer that tastes good to you is a real possibility. Go try some beers. Come back and tell us all about your experience: what beer you tried, whether or not you liked it, and what you liked or didn't like about it.

Benjamin Franklin once said Deus nobis cerevisiam dedit quia nos felices esse vult ("Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.") Go forth and be happy.

Posted by peterb at 09:27 PM | Comments (16)

November 11, 2005

Tricks are for Kids

by psu

Sometimes you have to feel sorry for the gaming industry. Here we have a medium that is in the beginning of its life, struggling to be taken seriously. It has slowly scratched its way to the big time as a source of commerce, and you can almost see the collective strain on the faces of game developers as they strive to turn games into art, whatever that means. I bring this up now because the main subject of our gaming discussions this week was Shadow of the Colossus, which has the distinction, along with its predecessor, Ico , of being among the few games that actually succeeds in achieving something like art. Both games are rare in that they elicit a emotional response in the player that is more complex than the standard childish rush of victory.

This is important, because nothing enrages the average fan boy more than accusing his favorite game of being "too kiddie". This is a charge that is often incorrectly directed at Nintendo, and it always brings howls of defensive anger from the Nintendo faithful. I think this anger originates in some deep insecurities that we gamers have about games. We desperately want games to be thought of as something serious, something profound, and most importantly, something mature. The fact that the ESRB has an "M" rating for games has no real bearing on this question. While there are games that deal with subject matter that is not appropriate for children, games that you can actually call serious or mature are extremely rare, if they exist at all.

Games generally have a streak of adolescence about them. This is not surprising given the origins of the medium, especially in the home console arena. But while some would claim that games are evolving towards a more mature treatment of subject matter and presentation, the evidence indicates exactly the opposite. Aside from the odd cerebral simulation or strategy title (which, incidentally, is probably not as good a game as Advance Wars), the "mature" games of this generation are anything but mature. Where you might hope for games with a varied emotional palette and sophisticated narrative, we instead get and endless stream of gang members shooting cops, aliens attacking the earth, mindless zombies, mythological warriors skewering hundreds of faceless enemies, and the occasional martial arts hero tale that makes an old Hong Kong Jackie Chan movie look like a high British costume drama.

What exactly is mature about these mature games? The fact that when you shoot a Resident Evil 4 villager in the head it explodes into tiny little pieces and a giant insect-like flailing beast comes flying out and pokes you in the eye? The three-way mini-game, or better, the "drop the poor caged prisoner into the raging fires of Hades" puzzle in God of War? Collecting gay porn in Shadow Hearts? The fact that there are two narrative lines in Knights of the Old Republic that are cleverly intertwined to contain the same plot points? Or maybe it's how in Halo, you know you are playing as that Arbiter guy because everything on the your HUD is purple, not blue. It is not an insignificant fact that the games listed above are among the cream of the crop for the last few years. Even the good games do not reach for a very high level of discourse. Think back on all the games you've played and examine them with the same critical eye that you would a serious book or film. Do any really speak in a way that goes beyond "huh huh huh, cool, that boss is dead"?

Now, this is not an entirely bad thing. Games are supposed to be fun, and adolescent power fantasies, science fiction opera stories, and of course, stories involving jumping plumbers are a lot of fun. So it is not surprising that this is what designers go after and what we players slurp up like the obedient little lap dogs that we are. All I am saying is this: if the "industry" wants to get the serious attention that many appear to believe that it deserves, then I think that they have to start to rethink what it means to create a "serious" or "mature" game. Games have to look beyond the aesthetic sensibilities of the 16-24 year old, even though those sensibilties are apparently an almost endless source of easy revenue. Furthermore, game players and journalists have to stop giving juvenile games that happen to get that "M" rating a free ride with respect to alleged maturity.

This is my core objection to the notion that Nintendo only makes "kiddie" games. My objection is not that the statement is misleading and narrow, even though it is. Nintendo makes excellently designed games. It just so happens that many of them use characters that are appealing to children. This appeal is an incidental corollary to the fact that the games are excellent to begin with, and actually appeal to everyone with a pulse. My main objection is also not that the statement is derisive and filled with contempt, even though it often is. No one should mock, or hold Nintendo in contempt for what they do. My real objection to such statements is the implicit assumption that the other players in this industry are not making childish games. This is false. Everyone is making almost nothing but childish games.

If we want people to take games seriously, we have to make, and buy, games that deserve such treatment. In other words, everyone, not just Nintendo, has to start thinking about how to make games that are not "too kiddie".

Posted by psu at 09:41 PM | Comments (8)

November 10, 2005

Dancing About Architecture

by peterb

Today's subject is the game Shadow of the Colossus. In order to talk about it, I'm going to have to make some observations about how critics commonly review games.

Imagine if art critics reviewed paintings the way game critics review games:

Paul Cezanne's Still Life with Plate of Cherries is a clear evolution from his previous outing in the Still Life series, Apples, Peaches, Pears, and Grapes. The area of the canvas has more than doubled since the previous generation, allowing much finer detail to be discerned. Furthermore, the improved technique used by Cezanne now allows him to depict many more objects on the canvas simultaneously. Unfortunately, Cezanne's rendering technique still leaves a lot to be desired: in particular, the draw distance in his works tends to leave the backgrounds overly blurry, compared to some of the recent releases by Matisse, who somehow manages to squeeze tack-sharp imaging out of the same pigments.

Reviews of games, in other words, tend to be analytical. They typically break the games down into specific components and talk about those components individually.

This serves the needs of a few types of people. Reviewers like this format because it is easier to write to. You can sketch out an outline of your review without even having played the game, and fill in sections as you think of them. History. Overview. Graphics. Sound. Gameplay. Online features. Done.

The game publishers like this format too, because it gives them an easy target to aim for, particularly when making sequels. Just figure out what games your new product is similar to, and make sure it is a little larger and has better graphics. 95% of the reviews will then say "This is just like [some other game], but bigger and with better graphics," and many of the people who bought the other game will buy your new game without actually stopping to find out if your game is actually any fun.

The people whose needs it doesn't serve — at least sometimes — are the players. Or, if we're being crass, the consumers.

Shadow of the Colossus is a great example of a game where this analytical approach fails. I found, while playing it, that if I focused on any one aspect of the game, that aspect wasn't that good. There's a lot to criticize if you only focus on the details. But when I step back and look at the overall experience of playing the game, I simply have to sit and stare: it's the best game I've played this year.

So I want to take what Robert Pirsig, in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, calls a "Romantic" perspective on Shadow of the Colossus. I want to talk about it in one piece, rather than by dissecting it until it is a lifeless husk.

Shadow of the Colossus is a game painted in broad strokes, on every level. The game mostly avoids the use of narration and verbal exposition. You have traveled to a forbidden land to try to bring a woman back to life. A supernatural being sets a task before you: destroy 16 lumbering colossi, each the size of a building.

Written down, it seems puerile. There's no "there," there. It reads like an excuse for a videogame. And yet, and yet, when seen, when experienced, when played, the very sparseness of motivation and character development work in the game's favor. The protagonist — Wanda is his name — is adolescent, not just in appearance, but in attitude. His single-minded focus and his disregard for his own life is something many of us have seen in our darkest moments. He seems to realize the utter futility of his task, and this makes his obdurate refusal to turn back all the more disturbing.

This is a dark archetype, and it is communicated through action rather than words. The art of videogames is in its infancy. The medium borrows narrative elements from writing, presentation techniques from cinema, and intellectual aspects from traditional games. Into this mix wanders the player, contributing his will. And as Wanda seeks out colossi and murders them, one by one, the player's complicity binds him tightly to the story.

In other words, this is a story that is more powerful because it was told in this medium. We care about the game because it is our hands that are unclean.

In order to proceed I have to — analytically — explain something very specific about the way the game works.The controls are fairly simple — move left, move right, jump, hit, and a button that basically means "hang on tightly to whatever it is I am on." When thinking about what I was going write about this game, I briefly considered opening with "Shadow of the Colossus is a game whose objective is to keep the 'hang on' button depressed at all times."

I have heard it said, as has everyone else, that the game is about combat and "boss battles." This is false. It's also been said that the game is a puzzle game. This is slightly more accurate, but also misses the mark. Shadow of the Colossus is a game about a single moment. The narrative, the scenery, the music, and everything about the game conspire to make that single moment matter.

You wander around the bleak landscape. You search for the next Colossus. You find him, and the scale of the challenge is revealed: he is the size of a skyscraper. You begin to fight him. Eventually, you figure out how to climb your enemy. You leap at him, find a purchase, and hold on for dear life. At some point, the Colossus realizes what you are doing, and begins to thrash around, trying to throw you off.

The only thing you — Wanda — can do is try to hang on. Wanda is thrown about like a rag doll, sustained by nothing more than his sheer bloody-mindedness and his refusal to let go.

That is the central moment of Shadow of the Colossus. Everything before that moment is a prologue. Everything after that moment is denouement. The moment is stretched out, as you crawl through a Colossus' hair like a head louse, right up until the point that you finally deliver the killing blow.

Killing the Colossus leads to another emotion: disappointment. There is the sight of grandeur destroyed, a feeling of being a barbarian, a sense of palpable loss that comes with each victory. Once the killing is done, there is nothing joyous about it. That every encounter with a Colossus can be descibed as consisting of anticipation, mounting, piercing, spurting, and exhausted collapse is, I believe, not accidental. That such a reading of the text is not in any way titillating is an indication of how carefully the game has been constructed.

These battles take place within a larger framework whose elements are as carefully composed as an ikebana flower arrangement. The world in which you move is desolate, but not empty. Life exists here, but you have to look carefully to see it. If you're not looking carefully, you won't even see the skittering geckos, the plodding turtles, and the other animals in the game. But they are all there, and their presence is meaningful. The main actors in the game are similarly carefully placed. Discounting the supernatural beings, the number of characters in the game are three. There is Wanda, there is his horse, and there is the dead girl. Without using any dialogue, the game manages to convey complex emotional nuances in the relationships between them. The horse itself has more sensitivity and character than anyone in a David Mamet play. I cared more about that horse than about the entire cast of Halo or Grand Theft Auto.

There are, as I alluded before, many problems with Shadow of the Colossus that will frustrate even the most forgiving players. None of that matters. The game is about exploring disparities in scale and the emotions that accompany them. Taken in that light, it is an absolute success.

If you own a PS2 go buy Shadow of the Colossus as soon as you finish reading this review.

Additional Resources

Posted by peterb at 08:19 PM | Comments (3)

November 09, 2005

Shadow of the Colossus

by psu

There really isn't much to say about Shadow of the Colossus that is all that different from what I said about Ico. The two games share many of the same strengths and weaknesses, and are clearly cut from the same stylistic cloth. If I were as disciplined as the game's designer, I would just walk away now. But, I think there are some aspects of the game that current reviews have missed. And, there is the whole matter of the boss battles. I bet you thought I was going to try and squirm out of that one. No such luck.

Less is More

Shadow of the Colossus, like Ico before it, is a minimalist game. It places the player in an overworld which is large and yet almost completely empty. The gameplay mechanics are spare:  running, climbing, jumping, hanging on to various surfaces, riding the horse, wielding the sword, and using the bow and arrow. You are tasked with finding and destroying a series of 16 creatures. You ride out to each one, figure out how to climb it, and then take it down. This is the entire game.

I feared that the game would turn out to be a repetitive slog from colossus to colossus, but this is not the case. What happens over and over again in this game is that the designers manage to provide hours of variety from what seems to be thin air. For example, even though the game has you traveling through this empty world over and over again, every trip is new and interesting. The various areas of the game all have their own sense of space and mood and you can always shoot geckos if you get bored. The strength of the game's design is most apparent in the core of the game, the encounters with the colossi.

Puzzles, not Bosses

This game has been billed as consisting of "16 Boss Battles", but I think that this is misleading. It is true that your goal in the game is to destroy a collection of 16 huge lumbering creatures. It is true that occasionally these lumbering creatures will seek to do you harm. But, the core problem to be solved in each of these encounters is not figuring out how to beat the colossus. You beat every one in exactly the same way. Nor is the problem avoiding death by colossus. In general, if you are careful and understand the rules of the game, the colossus cannot kill you no matter how many times you are hit. Therefore, I don't think game consists of "battles." In fact, there is almost no combat in the game. Instead the game presents you with a variation on the "move from point A to point B" theme in Ico. Rather than fighting the colossus, you have to figure out how to climb the thing and then navigate to it's critical zone, and then hold on for dear life and hit it there until the creature falls. It is the climbing, navigation and holding on that are the hard problems. It's as if the castle in Ico got up and started walking around.

Since figuring out what to do takes careful study and reflection, the game goes out of its away to make sure you always have as much time as you need to study the situation and work out the puzzle:

1. For the most part there are no cheap one hit kills. It is almost always possible to put yourself in a position where you can observe the situation without being damaged. In fact, as many of the reviews of the game have pointed out, some of the colossi won't even pay attention to you unless you whack them once or twice. This puts you in the interesting position of occasionally feeling guilty for doing what the game told you to do.

2. If you rest, you heal automatically. This means that you can test strategies almost endlessly without worrying about restarting the fight because you died.

3. When you don't understand the puzzle, the game will give you clues about what to do. In fact, the game explicitly tells you exactly where you need to go to dispatch the creature. It just doesn't tell you how to get there.

4. In general you use the same mechanics and the same techniques to fight each each colossus. There is no special three eyed colossus that requires that you put a blue spike in each eye in order for a secret door on his body to open up so you can climb in and find the real colossus inside. The game designers only allow themselves to expand on things you have already seen, and they only do that once or twice.

Thus, Shadow of the Colossus presents the player with "boss fights" that have almost none of the hateful characteristics of a standard Boss fight. Where big fights in most games are a twitchy combat-based death-march, the encounters in this game are environmental puzzles that reward careful thinking and methodical execution. Once you solve the puzzle, the final result of the encounter is a given. You just have to proceed in a measured and patient manner to the eventual finish.

But the real brilliance of the game is the evolution of these puzzles into successively more intricate set pieces. These sequences do not necessarily become harder, but they do require you to combine elements of the game and its environments in more complicated ways. Again, the designers build great variety and depth from a minimal set of starting elements. The progression of the puzzles is paced perfectly, so that you are always ready to discover the next trick. The game's best moments come when you have executed everything perfectly and can sit on top of a giant creature and contemplate your inevitable victory for a few seconds before you bring the colossus crashing down to earth.

Small Annoyances

Of course, the game is not perfect. The main character often acts in ways which make you question his mental acuity. It's hard to make him run in a straight line, he likes to jump instead of getting on his horse, and he has an annoying habit of jumping off the ledge that he just reached after climbing for twenty minutes. This, combined with a sloppy camera makes some of the trickier platforming in the game harder and more punishing than they should be. Beware of Colossus Knee.

The horse is also something of a mixed blessing. While you can't help but develop an emotional bond to the horse, it can be difficult to move where you want, much like Yorda in Ico. In this sense, I think the horse shares in the mental feebleness of his owner.

Finally, the game uses an even more minimal savepoint system than most. In general this did not bother me, but as the encounters became more complicated and time consuming, I would have taken the ability to do a mid-level save as a sign that the game designers didn't hate me. Also, would it have killed them to give me save after I defeated the final colossus but before the final cut scene rolled?

The Rest

The rest of the main game consists of some extended cut scenes that set up the story, such as it is. These scenes add to the feeling of ambiguity about the tasks and goals put in front of the main character. After just a few of the early battles, one suspects that there is more going on than meets the eye. As the battles continue, this sense of doubt and foreboding builds, but you gain no additional insight until you get to the end of the game.

The end game presents you with the game's most complicated battle, and another long cut scene that shows you the rest of the story. The ending is satisfying, if a bit predictable. It does a good job of tying together the explicit narrative of the game with the "implicit" narrative of the colossus battles. In the end though, the encounters with the colossi are the core of the game and the emotional core of the narrative, and this is how it should be.

Shadow of the Colossus stands as a testament to how much a video game can achieve by using a small number of elements in the most creative way possible. The game combines disciplined design with astounding presentation. The occasional technical problems are forgivable because when the game works, it is breathtaking in its character, scale and grandeur. If you own a PS2 and played Ico, you should play this game because it is a wondrous extension of that world. If you own a PS2 and didn't play Ico, then you should buy both of these games and play them through.

Posted by psu at 04:17 PM | Comments (6)

November 08, 2005

Metapost: Opinions about Ads in RSS Feeds

by peterb

A quick poll for those of you who read Tea Leaves via a newsreader or bloglines. Please comment on advertisements in RSS feeds. Do you hate them? Are some types of ads OK and others not OK? Or do you not care at all?

My personal feeling is that I can easily accept (and ignore) a text ad that is a couple of lines, but if you make me follow a link to read the full text of your article, I hate you.

What do you think?

Posted by peterb at 06:52 PM | Comments (14)

November 07, 2005

Things You Need to Cook, Addendum

by psu

Earlier, I made a short list of everything that you really need to cook. At this time, I need to add one small item. In addition to the stuff I that I listed earlier, you should head over to the Costco and pick up a "half sheet" pan. These are shallow aluminium pans that measure about 13"x18" that you can use to bake, well, almost everything.

Generally, I use them to roast things that I don't really want to use a roasting pan for. I have a bad relationship with roasting pans, and like dutch ovens or these shallow pans instead. They are particularly good for potatoes (toss the potatoes in olive oil, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper, toss them on the pan and into the oven for 40 minutes). They are also great for making that one guilty prepared food pleasure that no one should be without: tater tots.

I think I also used mine to do that oven poached salmon... and it would work equally well for oven roasted salmon. Basically, if you aren't roasting it in a pot or a pan, put it on one of these things and throw it in the oven. Apply the consumer rule and buy six, so you never run out.

Posted by psu at 08:33 PM | Comments (3)

November 04, 2005

Yo Ho Ho

by peterb

It was just this past January that I published an article called What To Drink (Booze Edition), purporting to advise readers as to what liquors they should keep stocked in their houses at all times. One of the things I said was that, unless you had a specific need for it, you could easily get by without a bottle of rum.

I stand by that statement. But in the interests of better living through chemistry, allow me to share two recipes that will give you the specific need for a bottle of rum.

Since today was a particularly beautiful autumn day here in Pittsburgh, I'll give you one recipe suited for a nice summer day, and one more suitable for the darkest winters.

Making a drink with rum that tastes bad is easy. The omnipresent favorite of irritating chicks at frat parties everywhere, the rum and coke, is a great example. It's a simple drink that manages to make both of its ingredients taste worse. I'm not interested in giving you bad-tasting drink recipes. So here are two good ones.

The Real Daiquiri

"Daiquiri" has become a dirty word in the modern lexicon, having become associated solely with frou-frou strawberry milkshakes from Chi-Chis. Generally, if you say "Daiquiri" to someone, they'll envision a big glass of frozen ice and strawberry slush which has some amount of rum in it, generally not enough to actually taste.

The real daiquiri is a strong drink. The real daiquiri will make a grown man fall over and forget where he left his brains. Here's how to make one.

You need: limes, rum, and sugar. And some ice cubes. That's it.

Squeeze the juice of one lime, and put it into a glass with some sugar (use simple syrup if you have it, but my life is too short to spend making simple syrup). The sugar is "to taste" — I use no more than a teaspoon or so, but you might like more. Mix until the sugar is dissolved. Into this, add a shotglass-sized amount of gold or white rum. There are two rules of thumb here. First, you want to add as much or more rum than lime juice. The traditional recipe calls for half again as much rum. Second, don't use dark rum. It will just ruin the drink and make it taste bad.

Add a couple of ice cubes to the glass. Swish them around, and drink. If you drink it fast, it's probably a good idea to have something soft nearby to land on when you fall over.

That's the perfect summer drink. Here's the perfect winter one.

Hot Toddy

The first step is to develop seasonal affective disorder from not seeing the sun in 2 months because it's dark when you wake up and dark when you go to bed. Then develop a head cold. When all that prep work has been done, make a hot toddy.

Make a pot of good tea. Fill a teacup about half full. Into this, squeeze half a lemon. If you're motivated enough, you can cut off the outer peel (which will be bitter and have pesticide on it) and drop the lemon in the cup, but don't feel like you have to. Add a tablespoon of molasses (or, if you're me, more), and then a generous tot of rum. Sit near a fire and enjoy.

Those are the recipes that I'm giving to you. But now I need you to give one to me.

A Drink I Don't Understand

Some years ago I read a certain American magical-realist book that takes place in a mythical fin de siècle New York. One of the protagonists, in the coldest months, frequently finds himself at certain bars where they are serving roast oysters and hot buttered rum.

"Hot buttered rum." It sounds so intriguing, doesn't it? What could it possibly be? It sounds all spicy and Christmasy and elegant. So, armed with a search engine and a will to expand my horizons, I found a recipe for the drink, and made it. It tasted exactly as foul as butter and rum mixed together could possibly taste, which it turns out is extremely foul.

So either I simply don't like the drink — which is certainly a real possibility — or the recipe I got for it was terrible, or the most pernicious option: really, no one in the entire world actually likes this stuff, it's just talked about because it sounds all old-timey. My challenge to you is to give me a hot buttered rum recipe that you yourself have actually made and enjoyed. If you haven't personally made it, tasted it, and liked it, don't bother sharing your recipe here. If you have made, tasted, and liked it yourself, then tell me your secret. So that I can try it too.

I'll follow up in this space with the results of my attempt to try your recipe.

Cheers!

Posted by peterb at 07:27 PM | Comments (5)

November 03, 2005

Colossus Knee

by psu

I have been working towards the end of Shadow of the Colossus the last few days.

Strangely, at the beginning of last week, my knee became sore for no reason. I went to see the doctor, who gave me some pills, and the pills made it better. Until last night whe, suddenly, the knee flared up again.

So here is the only thing I can trace it to: both flareups corresponded to particularly long bouts with a colossus.

I can only conclude that I have a video game injury, which is pathetic, and an indication that truly, I am old. Hopefully I can finish this game tonight and heal up over the weekend.

Posted by psu at 05:19 PM | Comments (8)

November 02, 2005

One Word Tea Review

by peterb

Upton Tea's "Imperial Grade" Lapsang Souchong:

Ugh.

Posted by peterb at 09:04 PM | Comments (8)

November 01, 2005

Now I Remember Why I Don't Play PC Games Much Anymore

by peterb

These past couple of days I've been playing a certain fairly new Windows-based PC game, in preparation for an in-depth review. I won't mention the title right now. You'll probably be able to guess it, once the review is finished.

Within the space of two days I've gotten to experience: stupid copy protection schemes that try to interfere with my computer's operation when not playing the game, random crashes, poor performance, a generally poor user interface, modal dialog boxes that prevent me from using the in-game help system, and a host of other annoyances.

I guess this must be some of that "deep, complex gameplay that isn't possible on a game console" that I hear so much about.

Posted by peterb at 09:58 PM | Comments (6)
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