December 29, 2005

Epileptic Fit Hot Chocolate

by peterb

My typical recipe for drinking chocolate involves cocoa powder, whole milk, a pinch of salt, and some vanilla. No sugar. Chocolate is supposed to be bitter. A pinch of cayenne pepper will serve, too.

But sometimes, once in a blue moon, on a particularly bad day, you have to do something different. Here's one way to do it.

This recipe sprang from a fundamental misunderstanding about hot chocolate in Madrid. You only ever eat churros and chocolate at 4 in the morning after being out drinking all night. So of course, when trying to replicate the recipe I used Drunk Guy Logic. It goes like this:

Yum. Chocolate good. Thog like chocolate. Chocolate thick. Thog like thick chocolate. Thog wonder how pretty Madrid seņorita make chocolate so thick. Mmmmmmmmm, chocolate. Thog think pretty Madrid lady probably just put lots of chocolate in. Yeah, that it. Thog sure.

You see, it never occurred to Thog that they used corn starch. What can I say. It was 4 in the morning.

So, I eventually figured out how to replicate the experience of Madrid chocolate, without using corn starch. There are a few key differences between my recipe and the authentic one. First, and most importantly, it is not served to you by a cute madrileņo or madrileņa. Second, it's a bit more of a pain to make. Third, if you drink too much of it, you will go into a chocolate overdose seizure, and die.

Ingredients

  • One large monopoly-board sized bar of chocolate. I traditionally use Callebaut bittersweet, because that was the last bar this size I bought. Over time, my taste has changed, and if I was doing this again, I'd get something with more cocoa and less sugar. Be warned that once you buy one of these monopoly-board sized, 11 pound bars of chocolate, you will own it forever. When you're not looking, it regenerates used portions by absorbing nearby materials and metabolizing them. Keep it away from pets.
  • A ball-peen hammer.
  • A double boiler (or just two saucepans with which you'll make a bain-marie).
  • Milk.
  • (Optional) a portable defibrillator.

Keep the chocolate wrapped in its paper. Have a friend hold the bar in mid air. Thwack the bar near the end with the ball-peen hammer, shattering it. Take off some large pieces — you're looking for maybe between a half pound and a pound of chocolate — and put them in your double boiler or bain marie. Heat on medium, checking every 5 minutes or so. Try not to mess with it too much.

Try to not get any water at all (including condensation from steam) into the chocolate. If any water does get into the chocolate, it will seize up and harden. If this happens, don't panic. The solution to water in your chocolate is, counterintuitively, to add more water and mix it in, until it flows again.

Once the choclate is soft and molten, add milk and stir. It should still be somewhat thick even after adding the milk; if you used a sufficiently stupidly huge chunk of chocolate to start with, and a small saucepan, you probably won't be able to thin it out too much. Heat it through. Serve when the little pieces of chocolate that re-solidified when you added the milk are melted again.

When drinking this with friends, always make sure at least one person abstains. That person can be the one to call 911.

You might die. But you'll die happy.

Posted by peterb at 07:44 PM | Comments (4)

December 28, 2005

The Real Thing

by psu

The search for the true and authentic culinary experience occupies the mind of all of the food obsessed people of the world. Real Chinese. Real cheese. Real barbeque. Real sushi. The list goes on and on. Entire magazines and cookbooks dedicated to the objectively correct or best way to cook this or that. There is even a world-wide semi-political movement whose solitary goal is to preserve the traditional food culture of Europe and beyond against the attack of the faceless corporations.

But Real Food is hard to pin down. People disagree about basic facts. In Eastern North Carolina, Real BBQ sauce is tomato-free. In Western North Carolina, it has tomatoes. Northern Chinese food uses a lot of bread and baked goods. Southern Chinese food is spicier, and has more rice and noodles. Many people claim, incorrectly, that it is proper to put ketchup on a hot dog. Others would have you believe that when constructing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you should put the peanut butter and jelly on different slices of bread. This is, of course, stupid.

On the other hand, Real Food is certainly not some completely subjective relativistic construction. There are things which are just wrong. Vegan fake meat tofu roast "turkey" dinners are wrong. Experiments in "fusion" cuisine usually come out wrong. You know the sort of thing I mean. You look at the menu and see Spring rolls Alaska (smoked Scottish nova lox, served with neufchatel cheese and Australasian capers, on a sesame-infused roll) with a hominy polenta remoulade. Your heart sinks.

Outside of certain areas of the country, barbecue is almost always wrong. Most of what is served as "barbecue" in Pittsburgh, for example, is actually just braised meat that has been chopped up and then simmered in some kind of gravy for days on end. What then ends up in the sandwich has no real relationship to meat much less slow smoked pork shoulder.

Finally, who can forget the endless parade of single-brown-sauce "Chinese" takeout joints that cover almost every mile of our great country. It may be hard to pin down Real Food, but it's certainly easy to find the fake stuff.

I rambled earlier about how the search for new food experiences was at the core of my relationship with food and eating. I also think that this is the core of the answer to the question "Where does Real Food come from?". For me, Real Food comes from that experience of discovering that there is this whole other group of people who have been getting the good stuff for their whole lives and you've been missing out. Real Food experiences change you in ways that normal food experiences do not.

One time we had some friends and their family over for pot stickers. The family is from Italy, and did not have broad experience with Chinese food. So I did the best I could to replicate my mother's dumplings. I have gotten pretty good at it, but mine really still aren't close. Anyway, I remember that their young son was not all that impressed by the pot stickers. But then, a few weeks later, we ran into our friends, and they had gone out to a local Chinese joint of ill-repute and ordered the dumplings. At that point, the young son was much more impressed with mine. I can only imagine that if he actually had the Real stuff over at my mom's place, he'd be even happier.

I can remember dozens of food experiences like this one from my adult life. There was that first hit of a perfect cappuccino. The first time I got real smokey slow-cooked pork down in Carolina. Soft Shell crabs cooked just right. The bread pudding soufflé at the Commander's Palace. Real raw milk cheese. Fresh oysters on the San Juan islands. Steamed live shrimp in L.A. I could go on all night. In each case, my view of the food world was completely changed by taking one bite of the dish. I would say that outside of music, this is the closest thing to the sort of transformative experience that brings people to religion that I have had.

The only reason I bring up religion is a great scene in a great food movie called Big Night that actually makes the point for me. The Chef at a restaurant is hoping to obtain the affections of the woman who delivers the flowers. So he is cooking something simple back in the kitchen, a sauté of vegetables and tomatoes, I think. He tosses the stuff in the pan with some oil and seasoning, stirs it around and then gives her a taste, and all she can say is: "Oh my God. OH MY GOD."

His reply is something like: 'God is right, because to eat good food is to be close to God. "

This, I think, is where Real Food comes from. It is when you take that first bite of something new, and you are changed forever. It is the moment that separates the you that has not yet eaten the Real Thing from the you that has. It is the moment that you realize that while you might have missed out on the good stuff until now, next time you'll know where to find it, so you won't have to miss out any more.

If that is what it means to be close to God, then I'll take it.

Posted by psu at 08:02 PM | Comments (12)

December 27, 2005

Next Gen Meh

by psu

I just found out that like the PSP, the Nintendo DS has a delicious instant sleep feature.

Chances that either of the new next-gen home consoles have the same feature implemented in the OS and not in the stupid game: practically zero.

Chances that any of the next-gen games are really any better than Mario and Luigi: also practically zero.

My personal interest in buying a 360 to play anything but Madden 360: waning.

Posted by psu at 09:43 PM | Comments (2)

December 26, 2005

The Name of the Game

by peterb

I, like a number of people, have a few days of unexpected leisure at my disposal in the days leading up to New Years.

So instead of me helping you, here's your chance to help me: pick a relatively new "casual" game that you think it fun, and talk about it in the comments. Give me something new to play. Bonus points if it runs on both PC and Mac.

I'll start the bidding by telling you that you that if you like words, you should surely go download Bonnie's Bookstore. (I know a Mac version exists — I helped beta-test it — but it's not available from that page for some reason. I've asked the author to clarify).

Posted by peterb at 07:19 PM | Comments (5)

December 23, 2005

Talents I Don't Have

by peterb

Wrapping presents.

I just wrapped a Christmas present, lumpily. I couldn't find any scotch tape, so I used surgical tape. It looks exactly as bad as you might imagine.

Posted by peterb at 10:17 PM | Comments (2)

December 22, 2005

Cookie Discoveries

by psu

I made two cookie discoveries in the Target today. This is a bit odd. You don't expect to go to the Target to find out stuff about cookies.

My first discovery is that Target is the last local outlet around here that gets the good Carr's crackers. I like the thick wheat crackers, especially with blue cheese (mmmm, Stilton). For some reason every local purveyor of overpriced yuppie food in town has stopped carrying them. Even the normally reliable Penn Mac did not have them the last time I was there except in the sampler pack. I hate sampler packs.

So I was in the Target picking up Fig Newtons for the trip home, and lo and behold there was a whole shelf of Carr's crackers. When did Target become a local purveyor of overpriced foofy food?

While standing there and hoarding the crackers, I noticed something else interesting on the next shelf. "Key Lime" cookies. This stirred memories of cookies from my childhood, when I used to eat these round cookeis out of a green box that had fake lemon powder all over them. I now want these cookies. Happily, the "Key Lime" cookies were almost identical to what I remember eating as a child, except they are stick shaped instead of round.

So the mystery remains, what are these round cookies that I remember?

Twenty minutes in Google digs them up: Lemon Coolers.

Who else remembers these cookies? Apparently, they have been discontinued. Another casualty of the cut-hroat competition in pre-packaged artificially flavored cookies.

At least Target has the same thing now. I think I will now buy all my cookies at Target.

Posted by psu at 09:03 PM | Comments (13)

December 21, 2005

"What Were They Thinking?"

by peterb

To make any consumer product, thousands of decisions must be made. Inevitably, no one can get all of those decisions right. Even the best-designed gadget or toy will still have some mistakes in design or execution.

Despite this, there are certain moves some companies make that go beyond bad, into the realm of the bewildering.

If I was feeling snarky — and let's face it, when am I not? — I might use this space to take some cheap shots. For instance, I might opine that having Civilization IV — a turn-based strategy game played, largely, by old, slow people— require the latest, cutting-edge 3D video cards, was one such decision.

But there are better targets for my ire tonight. Because tonight, I screwed up. I tried to watch a DVD.

Over a year ago, psu wrote convincingly in this space about the stupidity of DVD menus. And that's all still true: film companies still spend tens of thousands of dollars producing fancy animated DVD menus that nobody, anywhere in the entire world, since the very beginning of time, has ever wanted. The animated menus serve one and only one purpose, and that is to make me want to fly to Los Angeles so I can strangle whoever designed them.

But the people who come up with the animated menus might as well be saints compared to whoever designs the parts that come before the menu.

Look. I'm a fair-minded man. I am a capitalist. You want to put an advertisement before the main menu? Fine. You want to put two ads before the main menu? Be my guest. You want to put sixty-two ads before the main menu? Knock yourself out.

But if you disable the buttons on my DVD controller while you're playing those ads, then it's all over. The terrorists have already won. Don't come crying to me when people all across the world are bittorrenting your movies. You deserve it. I hope they steal your stuff. I hope you don't make any money at all. I hope you starve to death.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a DVD I need to take back to Best Buy.

Posted by peterb at 09:56 PM | Comments (11)

December 20, 2005

The PC is Dead, Long Live the PC

by psu

Pete, as usual, has generated a lot of comment traffic with his recent rantings about whether or not it is the fault of the developer when a game on a PC is a crashy piece of crap. For the most part, the battle lines are drawn along the question of whether the PC as a platform is just too complicated and intractable to make an enjoyable and reliable vehicle for interactive entertainment.

The problem is that the PC is by its nature not a single platform. Every single PC is essentially its own unique platform with its own unique set of problems. This means that everything that you run on the average PC has the potential to become a crashy piece of shit, arguably through no fault of its own. What this means is that whenever one buys a game to play on a PC, it is implicit in the contract that one will also be beta-testing the driver and other system level interfaces between the game and the rest of the PC. As a result, even in products that are relatively bug free, a lot of people get crashes and other annoyances.

This may be a fact of life, and I can understand the engineering reasons that might make it a fact of life. But, one shouldn't be deluded into thinking that it is OK. It isn't OK. For example, I know multiple people who have had a game or the system crash while playing a certain game because of cooling problems in the PC. Why should I have to worry about the cooling architecture of the machine in order to play a game on it? I suppose some people want to engage in the meta-game of whack-a-mole to find the workable configuration on which many games do not crash. They can be my guest. I lost interest in that kind of thing around the time I graduated from high school.

Stuff should just work. If PC gaming wants to climb out of the grave that it is slowly digging for itself, it must come to terms with this issue.

But, I am not here to bury PC gaming. That's been done in other places by other people who are probably better at it than me. I am here to bury the general purpose PC as a computing platform. I used to be skeptical of the notion that the world would be populated not by the general purpose computers of my youth, but by special purpose machines that could only do one thing and could not be upgraded or reprogrammed. What a waste, thinks the brain of the engineer when confronted by this vision. All of that hardware and I can't even use it to write code? Why would anyone want that? Flexibility and programability, it seemed to me, were the major leverage points that set my beloved machines apart from everything that had come before. Here was a machine that could do anything as long as you could find the right representation.

Of course, as we have all found out, flexibility is both the shining glory of the computing machine and the instrument of its downfall. We can hook the machines up on the network for instantaneous communication with others thousands of miles away. We can do the same thing and spread email worms and other pain at the same lightning speed. You can program the machine to be any kind of environment that you want, but what this means is that like PC games, what you end up with is a machine that not only never works, but will not tell you why it doesn't work.

The Axiom of Choice states that to fight complexity, you limit flexibility. But for computers, this has never really worked. Many organizations have a vested interested in keeping the general purpose PC alive. Also, many people who buy computers are not after simple machines that work. They are after toys to tinker with, things to fix. These and other factors play into the entrenched position that the general purpose PC has in the world. I don't think that most people who buy a computer to surf the web and look at pictures really want or need what we are selling them. But it's all that is there.

However, this does not mean that we do not have more and more single purpose computing machines in our lives. Even though the systems used for computing have not been evolving towards a simpler future, something has happened that my past skeptical self did not notice. More and more single purpose devices in the world are really just simple computers, designed to do a single thing well and not crash all the time. Off the top of my head, here are the obvious and not so obvious ones:

1. Xbox, PS2, Gamecube
2. DVD player
3. iPod
4. My car (although my car crashes more than my iPod).
5. Tivo
6. My oven (horrible user interface)
7. My TV. Probably more raw image processing power here than in the game consoles or a high end PC. Does not crash as much.
8. My cell phone.
9. GPS
10. The cash register at the Giant Eagle. Well, OK, these actually run Windows, but I bet you can't install software on them.

I also find that while my general purpose computers are as complex as ever, one way that I try to tame that complexity is by limiting what I do with them to a variety of narrowly targeted tasks. So, the iMac does nothing but run iTunes. My office machine is only used to write code, send email, and edit specifications. My laptop is mostly for photo processing, writing, and web surfing. And so on. This limits what I install on the machines and thus limits the complexity of the configurations.

It seems obvious to me that the next natural step should be to continue to simplify the general purpose computer to make them easier to use and easier to set up. An obvious place to be doing this is in extending the Tivo idea to the "living room computer" or "media center PC". Of course, since engineers and PC manufacturers are building these machines, this is not what happens. Instead what we end up with is machines that are very flexible, but hard to set up and hard to run. In the long term, if PC gaming is any indication, this is the wrong tradeoff. Hopefully in a few years, I'll be writing my blog rant on a special writing machine, and then reading it back on my web surfing tablet while playing Halo 6 on my Xbox 9. Dare to dream.

Posted by psu at 07:35 PM | Comments (11)

December 19, 2005

Status Report

by peterb

Current obsession: Travian, a browser-based MMOG. I am still in the honeymoon period, which means the game proper hasn't actually started, since I have a couple of more days before the pillaging hordes can destroy my village. I'll write a proper review then.

Travian looks like Settlers of Catan, but it isn't.

Speaking of which, if you want to play Settlers of Catan, you should try AsoBrain's Xplorers. Online Catan. They also have a fairly nice clones of several other games, as well.

Posted by peterb at 06:14 PM | Comments (0)

December 15, 2005

FOTR, TTT:EE, OMG The Pain

by psu

Why, you might ask, am I going to write about movies that have been out on DVD for two years?

Well, new TV in hand, we sat down to watch some big movies. The biggest movies that we have are the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy. When these were released on DVD, I originally picked up the extended versions, not so much for the extra film material, but more for the commentaries and documentaries. I'm a sucker for that stuff. I neglected, however, to buy the theatrical DVDs, except for The Fellowship of the Ring.

Having worked through the non-extended FOTR, and most of the extended TTT, I have to say that with the benefit of hindsight and time, the theatrical cuts are unquestionably the better films.

Now, this should not be surprising. Jackson himself repeats over and over again that the extended versions of the films are not supposed to be a director's cut, or the canonical versions of the movies. The extra material was just there because they had shot it, and they thought that people would find it interesting even though for various reasons it did not make the final cut of the theatrical films.

When the extended Fellowship was released, it was pretty clear that the extra footage was glued on mostly for the fan boys and completist freaks than out of any consideration for the film itself. Every time you hit one of the extra scenes in Fellowship the film grinds to a deathly halt, and by the third hour you just want to get on with it already.

By comparison, the theatrical FOTR is tightly paced and while it is often leisurely, it never drags. The story always moves forward, rather than standing still. Exposition and development are deftly overlapped with the emerging story. You don't really appreciate how carefully and wisely constructed the theatrical cut of the film is until you see what was taken out. So, in this way, the extended cut does its job. While a weaker film than the theatrical release, it does serve to provide you with insights into the original film that you might have missed the first time through. But, I never found much reason to watch it again.

The Two Towers surprised me though. With two years of shelf time, my opinion has completely changed. Originally, I thought that this was the weakest of the theatrical releases, and that much of the extra material in the extended version made it better. After a run through over the last couple of nights, I have to say that I was wrong. There are entire scenes in the extended film that do nothing but summarize the film that you have just watched. There are a few of the additions that do add to the context and background of major characters and storylines. But, they do not add that much, and I think that on the whole, cutting them was the right choice. Finally, there are various additions that are just complete drek (scenes involving stew, for example) and were justifiably thrown on the cutting room floor and probably should not have been brought back.

Overall, my opinion of the extended TTT is now much like that of the extended FOTR. I think that Jackson has achieved his goal of providing fun bits of extra detail and insight into the characters that inhabit the movie. And, having watched them, you can bring this extra knowledge to your appreciation of the shorter versions of each film.

However, I will no longer tell people that the extended Two Towers is more enjoyable. Because we are not even to Helm's Deep yet, and I just want them to get on with it already.

Unrelated Note

The TV looks great with these DVDs, even using my crappy old 480i DVD player.

Posted by psu at 09:32 PM | Comments (1)

December 14, 2005

Dollars to Donuts

by peterb

It's hard for me to remember the first game I played on a personal computer. Arguably, "Dancing Demon" by Leo Christopherson, for the TRS-80 Model I might qualify; that would have been in 1979. I don't recall there being a lot of actual gameplay there, but I remember thinking it was very, very cool. On the heels of that would have been various text adventure games — Zork, certainly, among others — that I played while camped out at the local Radio Shack. Later in 1979, I remember seeing (and becoming addicted to) George Blank's Santa Paravia and Fiumaccio, a game that is still fun and playable on modern platforms, even today. This game is, ironically, the precursor to many of today's "God games." Such as Civilization IV.

The first game I played on a computer that I actually owned was, if I recall correctly, NORAD for the Apple ][. That would have been in 1982. It was pirated, of course. I'd send a tenner to the authors of it, but I can't, because I don't know who wrote it, and apparently neither does anyone else. If you know, please leave a comment and clue me in.

NORAD was a simple game. At its heart, it was a variant of Atari's classic Missile Command, but it had a style all of its own, a style that was pure home computer. You didn't just have three missile bases, you had ten, numbered 1 through 0, one for each city you were protecting. Cities could take several nukes before they were completely destroyed. To launch an anti-ballistic missile, you typed the number corresponding to the base you wanted. You could steer the missile, up to a point, with the arrow keys. And when you hit the space bar, the missile exploded, hopefully taking out the incoming enemy ICBM with it.

The audio in the game was masterful for 1983. Everything was scratchy and irritating, fingernails-on-a-blackboard, static and razor wire. The action was frenetic and the scenario devastating. It was, and still is, the perfect home computer arcade game. I spent many hours saying "Just one more game" over NORAD. In the end, isn't that one of the signs of a great game?

Incidentally, I never once had it lock up or crash. Welcome to PC gaming.

If you have an Apple ][ emulator (find one here, for Windows, or here, for MacOS), you can download and play NORAD today. Try it out and let me know what you think.

Posted by peterb at 11:57 PM | Comments (25)

December 13, 2005

Lentil Stew

by psu

Here is a quick recipe to pass the time. We found a version in a cookbook or magazine that starts with a nice set of ingredients. So we decided to make it one night.

You start with around a pound, or 2 cups, of French green lentils. Clean them as you need to.

You also collect the following:

1. 2 or 3 stalks of celery, cut up. The recipe said to "roughly chop" the celery. What they mean by this is to dice it small. You know. Slice the stalk in half lengthwise... twice if you need to. Then turn it and cut it into little cubes. Rough little cubes.

2. 1 large onion or two medium ones. Cut these the same as the celery.

3. 2 carrots, cut up the same way.

4. A few pieces of prosciutto. The recipe calls for 4 to 6oz. What they mean by this is 4oz of the ham and at least the same amount of sausage, in little pieces.

5. Salt, pepper, thyme, bay leaves, and so on.

At this point, the recipe says to put the lentils, meat, vegetables and herbs into a pot, add enough water to cover and then some, and then cook it for 45min or something.

What they mean is that you should sauté the vegetables in olive oil and salt and pepper until they get soft. Then add the meat and sauté some more. Then add the lentils and stir them around. Now add water, chicken stock and white wine to the pot until you have a bit of liquid above the solids. Then add the herbs and more salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for as long as you need to to get the lentils soft.

The recipe then babbles something about taking some of the lentils out and putting them in a blender, and then putting them back in. I would skip that part and just put the stew over rice or bread and eat it.

It's a good thing we have recipes to tell us how to make food. Otherwise we'd be lost.

Posted by psu at 11:05 PM | Comments (4)

December 12, 2005

One Shining Moment

by psu
One great grenade

Since I finished Half-Life 2 I have not been playing with the consoles much. I think this has to do with something in my subconcious that loses interest in games every time I finish a Half-Life title. But, this weekend I fired up Halo 2 and tried out the "Rumble Armory" playlist, which I had not seen before. Immediately, I ended up in a sniper game with jch.

For me, a sniper game means that I run around and try to sneak up behind someone and beat them down before I get shot. I suck with the rifle. There is no point in denying it.

So there I was, running through the rocky valley of the Burial Mounds, and I saw jch in close quarters with some other guy. They were circling each other, firing their rifles in a spastic dance of mutual destruction. I saw this from slightly above them and from very very far away. So I did the obvious thing. I heaved a grenade half-way across the map, over two huge rocks, and hoped that it would land somewhere near the two victims.

A few seconds layer, I got my payoff. The grenade exploded, I got the little "You killed" message on my screen, and I heard jch screaming bullshit into the headset. This shining moment is archived forever in the game viewer at bungie. The image above shows my little avatar with an arrow to where the grenade landed, killing jch's little avatar.

Small pleasures.

Posted by psu at 08:35 PM | Comments (3)

December 09, 2005

Sell Out

by peterb

In addition to the writing I do for this weblog, and my day job, I occasionally get the opportunity to work on other projects. One of them has bourne fruit, and I am now a paid and published game reviewer. My review of Civliization IV appears in the latest issue of played.todeath.com. Please feel free to give it a read (PDF format).

Hopefully, you'll read it in time to take Civilization IV off of your holiday gift lists.

Which brings me, once again, to the topic of game reviews, game reviewers, and why so many of them are so absolutely terrible. I think that I'm in a position to explain this clearly now.

Some of you may recall that I addressed this issue earlier in the year, where I pointed out that Game Girl Advance was engaging in some unjustified apologetics for unethical behavior on the part of a game magazine. The howls from some paid game reviewers shook the rafters. Their defenses were many, but most of them centered around either recharacterizing my argument as claiming that they were all being paid off in cash in a parking garage somewhere, or by simply asserting that, since I was not a professional writer, I simply didn't understand the time pressures and tradeoffs involved in writing a quality review.

So now that I'm officially a professional writer — although, thank God, not one who has to write for a living — I still think these writers are deluded. Video game reviews, on the whole, are terribly written. Let's think about why.

It helps, in this context, to look at counterexamples from other media. Film is the example most people choose. But today, I'm going to talk about automobile reviews.

Your average, run-of-the-mill car review, found in your nondescript, middle-American newspaper, is of more use to the consumer than your average, run-of-the-mill videogame review. In part, this is because there is more at stake. Cars are durable goods that people evaluate carefully before purchasing, and if you engage in puffery people will tend to notice very quickly, and complain about it.

It also stems from a vehicle's nature as a functional item. This is not to say that cars don't entertain — as anyone who has bought one can tell you, aesthetics matter — but that every car can be described in terms of how well it does any number of tasks. How does the gearbox feel? Is it responsive when you step on the throttle? How much body roll is there going around turns? How much space is there? Are the seats comfortable?

Furthermore, everyone is very aware that different vehicles cost differing amounts of money. The key question we look to car reviewers to answer is not "Is this car good," but "Is this car a good value." A review that simply says "The BMW M6 is awesome!" without any reference to other vehicles you can get at the same price point is an utterly useless review.

Let's look at the BBC 2 TV show Top Gear. This show is incredibly addictive, and watched and enjoyed by a lot of my friends, many of whom don't even care about cars. The show's hosts are opinionated, to the point of being crushingly rude about vehicles that they don't like. But even in their most cruel and cutting reviews, they find time to mention that the car gets good fuel economy for its class, or that it has a lot of cargo space. Even in their most fawning, adulatory paeans to Ģ400,000 cars, they find the time to mention that the fit and finish on the bodywork is garbage, or that the knobs on the radio are silly, or that the trip computer is hateful.

Game reviews — generally — are not written like this. Sure, they tend to divide the game into sections, and then purport to analyze them, but they don't, in my view, answer the fundamental questions. To pick just one example, none of the "best game EVAR" reviews of Civilization IV that you can find on Metacritic choose to mention that the game is amazingly crashy, or that it's user interface is worse than its predecessor. One excuse you find people making is that games are primarily entertainment content. That's sort of true, but sort of not. A game is not just like a movie. A game is like a movie, but it is also like a car. A game is entertainment, but it's also, in a very real and practical sense, a functional device.

It's not simply a matter of reviewers disagreeing with my opinion. More importantly, in none of the reviews I've read on Civ IV do I see a discussion of value. When discussing automobiles, it's easy to compare value because cars are sold at so many price points. Value is largely a matter of comparing the vehicle to other cars in its class, and to other cars at its price point. In games, the hidden variable is time. How much time will it take you to play the game? How many hours of enjoyment will the game offer, versus hours of mindless drudgery? How many hours will you spend on the tech support line, trying to find out why the sound stutters?

I'll reduce it to a simple rule of thumb. I don't care what game you're reviewing. I don't care how perfect (or flawed) it is. I don't care how pressed for time you are. If you can't find one bad thing to say about a game (or, in the case of a negative review, one good thing), then you are not doing your job.

So why don't most of the reviews of Civ IV condescend to mention that the game, as delivered in the box, is buggier than a prison cafeteria? I have a theory.

Game reviewers, like everyone else, are subject to the phenomenon of the latent object of desire. Most game reviewers are not software engineers. They don't see the meat that goes in to the sausage. As such, they are unreasonably optimistic about game publishers, particulary PC game publishers, ability to fix problems in patches. It's not just game reviewers. Everyone thinks that software engineering is easy. The other day I was visiting Slashdot and read an article whose thesis was, and I am not kidding, "Why doesn't Microsoft just fix the bugs?" I nearly choked on the sandwich I was eating, and several quarts of my own bile, out of sympathy for the person in Redmond who was going to read that and instantly have a brain aneurysm.

Game reviewers, I believe, approach games with this optimistic attitude, and they don't want to be a downer, so if there's a bug and if the game is by a reputable publisher, they just think "Hey, no big deal. They'll just fix that in the patch. Since the article I'm writing won't be published for another month, it might be fixed by the time people read it. Sure, the game doesn't actually work, but I'm sure that's just a simple matter of programming. I was having a lot of fun before the game crashed. I'll just think happy thoughts and say the game is a surefire candidate for Game of the Year."

I can't do that. I know you, Firaxis. I've been in your shoes. I was in the room with you when the architect said "Hey, I've got this great idea. Why don't we make all the objects in the game fully 3D?" I was reading the memo the junior engineer circulated that compared various 3D libraries, and recommended that you take the one that was cheapest because it had newer features, and besides, none of your customers would be using an old videocard anyway. I attended the presentation from the consultant who informed you that as long as your save game file format was XML, implementing it would take 3 days and it would be impossible for there to be any bugs. I was there. You dropped features, decided not to fix bugs, and skimped on Q/A because you had to make the Holiday season. I feel for you. I'm really really sorry you had to go through it, and I know that you don't feel any better about it than I do.

But there's one thing I can't do for you, Firaxis. I can't look at the pile of bugs you delivered and call it a good game. In the end, the choice about when to ship, and what to ship, was yours. And you blew it. So when people ask me what I think about the game, I have to be honest with them. I have to tell them the truth.

That seems, sadly, to make me an unusual game reviewer. If that also makes me a poor one, then so be it.

I approached the Civilization IV review, very deliberately, as an attempt to write a review about a game as if I was reviewing a car. I tried to write it as if I were one of the presenters on Top Gear.

I'm sure that my writing isn't as colorful as Jeremy Clarkson's. But I hope, in the end, that it is still fun to read, and that you find the review useful. If you have questions or comments on the played.todeath.com review, feel free to comment on it here, or send a letter to the editor.

Posted by peterb at 04:34 PM | Comments (26)

December 08, 2005

Games I Don't Get

by peterb

Lego Star Wars.

OK, so it's a postmodern fusion of the Star Wars movies with LEGO design sensibilities.

Alright. I can accept that.

Lego Star Wars

Oh, Lego Liam Neeson. How you entice me.

I can be a Hello-Kitty-style-Lego-Liam-Neeson, wandering around a ship waving a lightsaber. A Lego lightsaber.

I'm down with that.

Fun, lighthearted gameplay. Check. Generous savepoints and light-to-nonexistent penalties for death. Right up my alley.

But there's one game mechanic that is very, very odd, in terms of narrative. Just about every object in the game can be destroyed. When things blow up, they turn into money. You then use the money at the bar — it turns out that Lego Jedis are serious alcoholics, who knew — to buy upgrades and slaves.

So I can deal with being a Lego man. I can deal with being a Lego Liam Neeson. I can deal with being a cute little Lego Liam Neeson with a cute little Lego frowny face running around kicking ass with a lightsabre in his hand.

But I can't deal with being a cute little Lego Liam Neeson with a cute little Lego frowny face running around kicking ass with a lightsabre and trashing the place like I'm Keith Moon because I can take the twisted remains of the furniture and pawn them for cash. It turns out that that's where I draw the line.

Posted by peterb at 09:19 PM | Comments (12)

December 07, 2005

I Sing the Dinner Eclectic

by psu

We spend a lot of time pontificating on food on this site. So much so that often we are accused of being "foodies" or "food snobs". I categorically deny this accusation. A more accurate representation of my position is that I am a "food hobbyist" or "food obsessed."

The main line of the "food snob" attack is to make the claim that I am picky about the food that I consume. I suppose this could be true, but then it becomes hard to explain some of the favorite foods of my life. Consider that for the entire time I had moved away from Pittsburgh, I had almost monthly cravings for a beef dog with chili and cheese sauce from the O. Consider that I spent a large part of my childhood eating sandwiches made from white bread, slices of American cheese and Helmann's "Real" Mayonnaise. I have eaten and enjoyed the mystery meat sandwich at Chiodos. Cup Noodles for lunch is a staple. No antipasta plate is complete without both Proscuitto di Parma and Mortadella, which, as we all know, is basically the Italian verison of Oscar Mayer Bologna.

I have also been known to eat things that most people would not want to even look at. One of my pet projects on our trips to Paris was to always pick a new organ meat, or other nasty looking dish to try. While I have not managed to try Tête de Veau, I have had Steak Tartare a few times and liked it. Raw seafood and sushi, especially the nasty eggy stuff, is also a favorite. And, an hour after I read Fast Food Nation, I went out and got a Mcdonald's hamburger and fries. Take that anti-industrial food production elitists!

Another avenue of the "food snob" attack is usually the accusation that I only like food that is difficult to obtain, difficult to prepare, or just plain expensive. This stab hits a bit closer to home. It is true that I arrange special trips around favorite food spots. It is also true that I have spent a larger than average percentage of my salary on a meal. And, there is no denying that I enjoy an occasional trip to a place specializing in sophisticated preparations and perhaps overly artistic presentation.

On the other hand, many of my special trips were into some of the more out of the way places in North Carolina to sit down at a picnic table and consume barbeque off of plastic plates with those wedge-shaped sections in them. In addition, I'll go to any number of cheap takeout joints, hot dog stands, greasy burger bars and road side lunch trucks before I would spend too much money in the majority of the soulless cookie-cutter "fine dining" establishments in this great country of ours. Money and pretension do not lead to culinary happiness. You have to work harder than that for it.

A final line of attack usually accuses me of dismissing food which is not "authentic" or in some sense properly prepared. People might point to my apparently psychotic hatred of P.F. Chang's as an indication that I am mentally unstable in this way. But again, I think this is a mischaracterization of my opinion. P.F. Chang's is not bad because it is not authentic. P. F. Chang's is bad because it is bad. The food is made with no more attention to detail and quality than a drunk guy vomiting out in the back alley behind the bar. The fact that they also get the sauce on the twice cooked pork wrong is a fairly minor sin compared to what is going on in the rest of the place.

In the end, my relationship with food is more complex than just bucketing places into large classes mapping to "good" and "sucks". That, in and of itself, is not a very interesting activity, and does not form the basis for my obsessive behavior. If I had to pick one guiding principle for my relationship to food, it would not be some platitude about quality ingredients, sustainable development, or artistic and authentic preparations. No, all I would say is that I believe that there is more to food than a question of biomass per penny, and my ultimate interest is in exploring this more complicated relationship.

Food is interesting to me because it represents one of the most important defining characteristics of the culture and history of a place. At a personal level, my interest comes from the fact that I took a lot of the food of my childhood for granted, and then discovered that it didn't exist in the world outside of my mother's house. I wanted it back. Luckily, I had my mother to tell me how to do it and a lot of time to practice. While I can't do everything that she used to, I have a lot of the basics covered. I still haven't figured out how she does that thing with plain celery though.

This is what I mean by history and culture. All of the great food is passed down not in the huge reference cookbooks, but from mother to daughter (or son) because at some point someone makes the discovery that there is more to the stuff they loved as a child than just opening a can of soup. The act of searching for and finding these traditions, and tasting what results from them drives my apparently irrational obsession for doing things like smuggling cheese that smells like dirty socks through customs in my carry-on luggage. This is why we went to the Slow Foods Pittsburgh event at Lidia's last weekend and gorged on fish until we staggered out of the place, bloated and almost ill. This is why we drive to Toronto for Dim Sum, or DC for pulled pork, or why we head back to my mom's place to get another plate of her pot stickers, or stewed ribs. I'm pretty sure those ribs are one of the reasons I ended up marrying my wife.

This illustrates another aspect of my relationship with food, which is that many of the important experiences of my life have centered around food. A large part of the search for new food experiences comes from trying to replicate old food experiences. We don't go back to Paris over and over again for the great scenery, the art museums, or the awesomely attractive populace. No, we go there to eat. We go to recapture that sense of discovery that we had the first time. The giddy wonder that you could walk into a random place off the street and have fish that was perfectly cooked. The rush of trying something that you are not sure will be great, but having it turn out OK. The even greater rush of discovering some completely new way of doing things that is just incredible, like a poached egg and Hollandaise on an artichoke salad, or a rare piece of veal liver. Who would have thought? We go back to re-experience old wonders and to search out new wonders, because the French food traditions are both wide and deep. There are so many things to try, and so many places to try them that my only real regret is that we won't ever manage to get to Italy and Spain and Portugal to do the same thing. Life is too short to find all the great ways to cook organ meat.

So, far from being a food snob, I claim that I am a food eclectic. My goal is to run out and find good eating in as many different forms as is practical in my limited amount of time on Earth. I do not require that the food be fancy. I do not require that the food look good. I do not even require that food smell good. All I require is that the food is prepared with care and a personal connection to its origins and history. If you can do that, I'll even eat that Jell-O mold and Cool Whip salad that you bring to the pot luck. Jell-O molds are a great American tradition and not to be taken lightly. They also remind me that my mom used to make almond flavored gelatin cubes and put them in canned fruit cocktail. Now that is good eating.

There is always more good eating to be found. You just have to go out and look for it.

Posted by psu at 10:06 PM | Comments (14)

December 06, 2005

What Goes Around

by peterb

A number of Astute Readers pointed out that Atlantis, which I reviewed on Friday, is actually a reimplementation of an earlier game, Popcap's Zuma, and Mumbo Jumbo's modified Zuma clone Luxor.

I tried Luxor tonight, and I liked it. In the abstract, I liked it more than Atlantis, with the exception that the Mac version suffers from some slowdown when things get hairy. The experience of playing the two identical games got me to thinking about some of the structural stupidities of the so-called "casual game" market.

To use one good example, Phil Steinmeyer talks a bit about the saturation of the market with Zuma clones:

The past year in particular has demonstrated that a close clone of a hit game, albeit with a new theme, can sell quite well indeed (see the string of successful Zuma clones - Luxor, Tumblebugs, Atlantis, Beetle Bomp). None of these game were much better than Zuma, though Luxor introduced a new gameplay style (move along the bottom rather than in the middle), and Tumblebugs used 3D graphics to nice effect. There were only a couple of Zuma clones that failed, and those were markedly inferior in execution to the original Zuma and it’s clones. So basically, if you released a Zuma clone in 2005 of roughly equal quality to the original Zuma, your chances of at least moderate success were right around 100%.

All of which raises some interesting questions.

First, at what point does one game infringe on another game's copyright? Copyright does not protect ideas, but it does protect the expression of an idea fixed in a tangible medium of expression, which includes videogames. One could argue that slapping a new theme or outer story on a game changes it enough to not be infringing. And most of the players in the market are content to observe a sort of detente where they all borrow from each other without suing, at least so far. But really: brightly colored balls, each about the size of a child's marble. Narrow channel. Similar sound effects. Similar powerups. Shooty things. A new background and a name doesn't cut it: sooner or later, someone is getting sued. Especially when larger companies decide to capture a piece of the casual gaming market for themselves.

Secondly, what's a game reviewer to do in this environment? Do we discuss each game in a vacuum, merely considering how well it is implemented? Or do we discount a game somewhat, to the extent that it is copied from somewhere else?

I think I will settle on a middle course. Realistically, truly innovative games are few and far between. And when a really innovative game hits, its publisher is rewarded by it utterly failing in the marketplace. So it's not really fair, I think, to think less of a game just because it has lifted its gameplay, in nearly every way possible, from an earlier title. Copy away, boys! More games for me! Go for it!

However.

If, in the marketing and promotional materials for your carbon-copy game, you dare to describe it as "innovative," then I think you've gone out of your way to qualify for a little eye-rolling scorn.

So, to whoever at Funpause described Atlantis as having "innovative" gameplay: here's looking at you, kid. You should feel ashamed of yourself.

The reason this irritates me, on some level, is that so many of the casual games market themselves as being "intellectual" challenges, because of course moving blocks to align colors is a very sophisticated, intellectually rigorous activity. Yet I don't see any consciousness on the part of the makers of the games that the customers have a wider view of the gaming ecosystem. So the marketing talks to the customers as if they're smart, but acts as if the customers are dumb.

What I'd really like to see is one — just one — of these casual game makers who steps up and, on a regular basis, admits that they copy the ideas, and embraces it. "Yes, our new game, Rly'eh takes many game elements from Zuma, Luxor and Atlantis. We think you'll like it even better than those games, because it's shinier, and has Cthulhu in it. In fact, here's a link to Popcap, to Funpause, and to Mumbo Jumbo. Try all of our games. Buy the one you like."

I'd really like to see that. But I'm not going to hold my breath.

Posted by peterb at 12:01 AM | Comments (7)

December 05, 2005

Deal with the Devil

by psu

My friend Dave used to say that the exponential increase in hard disk capacity over time was sure proof that not only was the storage industry in league with the darker forces, but also that every disk platter was clearly populated with the souls of the poor industry employees who had signed the contracts needed to rev the latest generation of the hardware.

I have been shopping for a large screen television lately, and after becoming familiar with the prevailing technologies, I have to say that Dave is wrong. It's not the storage industry, but the TV people who have the true pact with Satan.

Even the oldest type of television has an air of magic about it. Consider: an electron gun at the end of a large vacuum tube shoots a beam of charged particles towards a large piece of glass. This glass is covered with light sensitive phosphors which light up where the beam hits them. By modulating the beam faster than you can see, the television scans the entire screen and generates an image line by line. At any point in time, the electron gun is only scanning one point on the screen. The only reason you ever see a whole image is that the phosphors stick on for a bit while the rest of the screen is scanned. That, and the fact that the screen is re-scanned a few dozen times per second. To generate color, you use three guns, one for each of the three primary colors. Broken down into its component details, it seems preposterous that displays like this should work at all. After 50 years of development, you can only marvel at the fact that along several axes the CRT still works better than all of the new screen technologies.

One of these new screen types is the LCD, seen in laptop computers, Palm organizers and Blackberries everywhere. These screens started out as those 12 segment displays on calculators that could display 0,1,2,4,5,6,7,8, and 9, but couldn't really make an "A" correctly. LCDs work by sandwiching a special liquid crystal between panes of polarizing glass. Normally, the crystal is oriented such that light passes through it and the polarizers, and looks clear. When you apply an electric field, the crystal twists and causes the polarizer to block the light so that the liquid appears dark. Shrink these cells, and the switches that run them small enough, and add color filters, and you get the modern color LCD display. Of course, it is completely preposterous that you can take some glass panels and squeeze special crystals and color filters and switching circuits all in between the panes and make something like this work.

Similarly, plasma displays are obviously impossible. Here again you have two panes of glass and some phosphor. Between them are millions of microscopic tubes that contain ionized gas. Run a control current behind the cells and the gas lights up the phosphor in front of the cell and you get a picture on the front of the screen. It's like each one of these cells is a tiny little CRT tube (although really, they are completely different), built in miniature, and they have collected them all together glued between two panes of glass to make a panel about 4 inches thick that displays images. It's really too bad that they have to trap the soul of an electrical engineer in each one of those plasma cells.

Having covered direct view, we can move on to rear projection sets. Confusingly, LCDs make another appearance here. Rather than making a huge panel of LCD material and switches and so on so you can look directly at it, you could shrink the panel down to a really small size. You then combine three of these panels, one each for red, green, and blue, and project a color image to the front of the TV using a powerful backlight. The TV takes a normal TV signal at its inputs, digitizes it, scales the picture from the normal NTSC resolution up to the resolution of the panel and projects the resulting image to the front of the screen for you to see. Magic.

Of course, this process can work in the opposite direction too, giving you a front projector. But I'm not going to get into that right now, because now I have to cover DLP.

The heart of a DLP television is an integrated circuit whose surface is covered with microscopic mirrors that are hinged. The control system can tell the mirror which way to tilt. Tilt one way, and the pixel is on. Tilt the other way, and the pixel is off. Make the mirror dance back and forth really fast, and you can get dithered gray scale values between 0 and 1024. To generate color, the image processing system spins a wheel with color filters on it past the chip so that you get a red, green, then blue image flashing past your face fast enough to look like a color picture.

So, just to be clear. The TV uses microscopic mirrors, that flash back and forth faster than you can notice. Yeah right. Those poor souls.

After all this shopping, the TV that I settled on actually uses a combination of LCD and DLP type technologies to get its job done. The Sony SXRD televisions uses a form of "LCoS", or Liquid Crystal on Silicon chips to generate a picture. Here, instead of a hinged mirror, you have a reflective substrate behind an LCD layer. Turn the pixel on, and the LCD is clear, and light reflects off of the substrate. Turn of the pixel off, and the LCD goes black. No light. LCoS combines many of the advantages of the LCD projection machines (3 panels, no color wheel) with the DLP sets (less space between pixels, because the switching hardware can be behind the glass, and they are reflective rather than transmissive, and thus have higher contrast).

Again, this is completely unbelievable. What is really going on is that the the souls of millions of poor electrical engineers are packed into the cabinet of that 50 inch diagonal back projection TV that you just ordered, and they are all shining tiny little flashlights at you to allow you to watch TV.

Or at least that's how it may as well work.

Posted by psu at 08:59 PM | Comments (4)

December 02, 2005

Indie Game: Atlantis

by peterb

I've never had much patience for Tetris.

It's not just Tetris, mind you, but pretty much any game that falls into the broad category of "usually brightly-colored, abstract pattern matching games." (And Sherlock doesn't count. That's a logic game.) I don't get an almost-sexual satisfaction in making blocks of similar colors merge and vanish. Lumines doesn't call to me. It's just something in my nature; I think I need a plot to really enjoy a game.

The closest I've come to liking this class of game would be the little minigames in Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates, probably because the piratey goodness gave it enough flavor for me to be willing to put in the drudge work ("I'm not mindlessly playing Bejeweld! I'm, uh, pumping bilge! Yeah, that makes it. Um. Better.")

Despite the fact that I don't love this type of game, I'm still capable of recognizing a good one when I see it.

Enter Funpause Games. I recently read a review of their work, that compared them to Ambrosia Software. My love for Ambrosia's games is very well documented. So of course, I had to try some of their games.

And you know what? The comparison is fairly apt. Like Ambrosia, Funpause seems to have a "house style": shiny, lots of attention paid to music and audio cues, and simple gameplay.

Funpause calls Atlantis a "ball-matching game." I call it "Snood with more motion." Snood is a frighteningly addictive game with a quirky sensibility that is something like a cross between Space Invaders and Tetris. Essentially a port of the arcade game Puzzle Bobble, Snood is a strictly tactical game; there's no time element pressuring you to make a move.

Atlantis

Funpause's Atlantis

Atlantis has an implicit timer, yet is a much easier game than Snood. This isn't necessarily a bad thing in a casual game. Brightly colored marbles are pushed down a channel towards an exit. You have a gun that shoots marbles up at the incoming stream. When your marble hits another marble, it becomes part of the stream. If by shooting a marble you create a string of 3 or more of the same color, the like-colored marbles disappear (and the incoming stream slows down accordingly). If enough marbles reach the end of the line, you lose a life.

There is a system of upgrades and bonuses in Atlantis — clearly inspired by Arkanoid — but it doesn't really gel. It's more of a distraction from the core game than an enhancement. But the core game is good enough that I don't mind.

Atlantis is available for both Mac and Windows, and a free demo (limited to one hour of play) is available for both platforms. I think it's a fun little diversion. Will you? Download it yourself and find out.

Posted by peterb at 07:09 PM | Comments (4)

December 01, 2005

Chinese Food In Pittsburgh

by psu

When I started eating Chinese Food in Pittsburgh, I can remember two sorts of places. There were cheap takeout joints like Ghengis Cones, which had Peking Duck sandwiches and soft ice cream. There were also "red plastic covered chairs" places, like Jimmy Tsang's, which fed many people at once, but whose food was not really identifiably Chinese. I also remember making the mistake of bringing my Northern Chinese mom to the old Szechaun House restaurant, and getting nothing but complaints about how the food was not fresh and vaguely stinky.

Given this background, it makes me happy that today you can pick up the Post Gazette and read an article about two Chinese restaurants that actually do serve food that reminds me of what my mom used to make.

It also makes me happy that the food writer picked exactly the two places in town that I would have chosen. You could quibble and say that Tasty or Chopstick Inn belong on the list, but both of those places retain the "double menu" structure that both Rose Tea and Orient Kitchen do not have. Since I grew up eating the Northern Chinese and Taiwanese style food that my mom made, I have a special affection for Rose Tea. That should not keep you from going after the Cantonese stuff at Orient Kitchen. Bottom line, give these people your money.

I have two minor quibbles with the article. First, the use of "Bean Leaf" as a translation for snow-pea sprouts is a bit literal and sounds strange to my ear even though it is literally correct. Second, the woman should have gotten the Home Style Pork Intestine with Duck Blood. She's missing out. She mostly makes up for it by mentioning the Chunk Chicken, which remains the single best East Asian dish available in Pittsburgh. Also, if you like the vegetable dishes she mentions, you can get all those greens at Lotus in the strip, the best produce store in Pittsburgh.

It's taken a long time, but I think Pittsburgh has finally gotten beyond Peking Duck and soft serve Ice Cream. Hopefully we can hold on to Rose Tea and Orient Kitchen. It would be a shame to lose them. Now, if only there were a single place that made good pot stickers.

Posted by psu at 08:00 PM | Comments (0)
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