January 31, 2006
When we discuss the weblog with our friends, psu and I have a running joke. It's something along the lines of "Hey, man. We can gripe for 500 words about anything."
I haven't been griping much lately, because I've been too busy playing Guitar Hero.
Let me just get this out of the way: yes, Guitar Hero really is that good. If you own a Playstation 2, and you haven't yet picked up this game, you should put down the computer, drive to your local game store, and buy it. Today. Right now. You'll thank me. It might be the best $70 you'll spend this year.
I didn't expect to have this reaction to the game. At its heart, Guitar Hero is "just another rhythm game," like Samba de Amigo, or Dance Dance Revolution. I find most of these games to be "cute," but not terribly compelling. Guitar Hero is compelling.
The centerpiece of the game is the custom controller, shaped like a small guitar (or a large ukelele). Along the neck of the guitar are five colored buttons ("fret buttons") that you hold to choose what notes will be played. On the body is a single "strumming" button that can be moved up or down. Also on the body is a whammy bar that modulates the note being played.
Where the game shines is in its feedback loop. The guitar soundtrack is fairly tightly coupled to the buttons you are hitting. If you miss a button (or hit the wrong one), the guitar track will cut out until you get the next note right. The psychological impact of this can't really be overstated. While playing the game, my main motivation isn't explicitly to get a high score, but to just keep the song sounding good.
The other aspect of the game is that the "easy" level really isn't. The first levels of most rhythm games tend to be insultingly easy. Guitar Hero starts off at a respectable pace, and I haven't yet seen someone who got a perfect score on their first runthrough of any given song, even on the easiest level.
The combined effect of these two factors — the feedback loop, and the difficulty level — is that Guitar Hero manages to succesfully deliver the sustained illusion that you know how to play guitar, even though you don't. On a rational level, I know that even the simplest guitar licks are beyond my abilities. But when I make a respectable showing on Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out," on Hard, that is forgotten. The lizard part of my brain, Thog, tells the rational part to shut up and go drink more stupid chamomile tea. Thog know how to play guitar. Thog can rock out.
Reinforcing this is the fact that a number of semi-real guitar principles apply to playing the custom controller. You don't have to release a lower fret when playing a higher fret. You can hammer on and pull off notes. The side-effect of playing this game is that you will suddenly have more respect for real guitarists, when you realize how hard it is to "play" difficult songs with a mere five buttons and one "string."
The stiff difficulty of the game also allows you to improve with surprising rapidity. When I first started playing, I peeked at a few songs on "Expert" level, and they seemed like some sort of cruel joke. Now, although still far out of my reach — I'm working my way through the "Medium" level, with the occasional foray into "Hard" — they just look difficult, but not actually impossible.
The selection of music in the game is fairly varied. It's obviously slanted towards arena rock and heavy metal. There are 30 covers of songs by bands you've actually heard of. Out of these 30 songs, I'd say I actually like perhaps 7. Even though I don't like the other 23, they still "work" in the context of a guitar game. And that's OK — I can still like playing "Bark at the Moon even if I don't like listening to it. You can find a complete track listing here, along with samples. There are also 17 (unlockable) tracks by independent bands that range from atrocious to nifty.
I guess I should be glad, really, that this isn't an Xbox game, because I'm pretty sure that if I could pay to download more songs on Xbox Live, I'd be broke right about now.
A lot of work went in to the motion-capture for the avatars in your virtual band, but as in all games of this type, it's sort of lost on the person playing the game. At least when I play, my eyes are glued firmly to the notes coming at me. The caricature rockers are fun, but will mostly be enjoyed by spectators, not players.
You simply can't get an idea of the game from hearing me talk about it, although you can sort of get the gist from watching videos of people playing. In the end, you simply need to trust me on this: stop what you're doing, and go get the game, and you will be a happier person. You will feel stupid walking through Best Buy holding a huge box with a guitar and flames on it. If, like me, you're old, you'll feel stupid as teenage girls laugh at you on the checkout line. If you live with someone, you will feel stupid when you walk in the house and explain what it is you just purchased. And then the moment you actually start playing your first round, you will forget all of that and feel smarter than all of the people who are having less fun than you because they're doing something boring and stupid, while you get to play Guitar Hero.
Bill from Dubious Quality calls it an antidepressant in the form of a plastic guitar. That's about the size of it.
January 30, 2006
Broadcast HD television is a complex and confusing landscape. There are multiple delivery systems (satellite, cable, over the air) with multiple evil vendors (Comcast, DirecTV, DISH) and multiple levels of availability and service. I was ready to put off the question for a long time. But then the Steelers got deep into the playoffs.
On a lark I bought a cheap indoor antenna that a friend recommended and I told the TV to see what it could find. Surprisingly, even though we had no luck at all with analog channels, many of the major local digital channels came in immediately, and with very high quality. Digital broadcasts are funny that way. If you can get them at all, the signal quality is pretty much perfect.
Armed with CBS and FOX in HD, we were ready for the Championship games, and a fine time was had by all. Football in HD is much nicer than watching football on a 50 inch screen using an upscaled super-compressed MPEG stream from DirecTV. No weird color streaking, good detail. Everything you would expect. (Of course, Pete couldn't tell the difference, because he is blind).
As a bonus, the Steelers won convincingly. Then I found out that the Super Bowl was going to be on ABC. The TV didn't manage to lock on to ABC. Now I had to learn more about HD broadcast than I cared to know.
The first confusion is where the actual HD channel lives on the "dial". I surfed around a bit and found out that the local ABC, while being channel 4 in regular TV broadcasts its digital signal on channel 51. So I tuned the television to channel 51 and got... nothing. I moved the antenna around. Still nothing.
Noticing that CBS-HD is mapped to channel "2.1" (the main channel is channel 2), I tried to tune to channel "4.1". Now the TV still showed nothing, but it also gave me a digital signal meter, which showed me... nothing.
It turns out that these ".1" sub-channels are just some remapping that the television does after its automatic setup has found the digital signal. The channel sends some meta-data over the air to tell the television to look for the digital signal on UHF channel 25 when I hit "2.1" on the remote. Sadly, there does not seem to be any other way to tell the television to look for a digital signal at a given frequency. The only entry point for this functionality is via the automatic tuner setup. This is retarded since if you are using a very directional antenna, you have no idea where to point the antenna so that the TV will find the signal you need.
I figured I was doomed to put an antenna on my roof, which I wanted to avoid. But, another friend who lives near me said that they can get all of the local digital channels easily with their outdoor antenna. So, I bought a long wire and tossed my indoor antenna outside into the raised flower bed. Then I told the TV to find more digital channels, and lo and behold it locked on to ABC, PBS, the WB and the freaky GOD channel.
With this success I pulled the antenna back into the house. The TV, having locked and mapped the digital channels could now give me the helpful signal meter, so I figured I'd see if ABC would come in without running the wire outside. Surprisingly, it did. I moved the antenna around to find the best spot, and now we are all set for SUPER SUNDAY.
Of course, all happy endings deserve a bitter complaint. Let me sum up: in order to get ABC-HD, I had to throw my antenna outside so the automatic tuner setup could get a lock. Then I could bring the antenna back inside and set things up for real.
My question is: why did I have to do this ludicrous dance to lock on to the station automatically before I could try and lock on to the station by hand? Surely in a television that costs several tens of hundreds of dollars, they would provide me with a tuner that can look for both analog and digital broadcasts at a given UHF channel.
Instead, just to get ABC, I have to read about the gory details of the ATSC channel meta-data information standards to work out exactly how everything works. No wonder so many people buy big televisions and never even bother to hook them up to an HD broadcast source.
Nice going consumer electronics industry, you just gave me another reason to feel that my buddies in the computer software business understand user experience better than you do.
January 26, 2006
I used to like buying books. Now I like giving them away.
Once upon a time — the story began — I had an empty shelf and very few books. Ah, the innocence of youth: I enjoyed buying books. I enjoyed reading them, and putting them on my shelf for all the world, or at least the part of the world that visited my apartment, to see. How clever, how sophisticated, how worldly! Look! Thomas Pynchon! This man has read Thomas Pynchon, or at least has his books on his shelf, which amounts to the same thing.
But the worm turns, and with age comes wisdom. And now, I am giving many of my books away.
Through hard experience I have, over the years, come to learn a few things:
- Most of the books you read, you in fact only want to read once.
- Not every book you buy is one you want to keep on your shelf for the world to see.
- In fact, now that I'm older, I no longer give a damn what the world thinks of my bookshelf, and that copy of Mason & Dixon takes up a lot of space and is awfully heavy.
- I always want to read a book more when I am reading about it on amazon.com than I do when I actually open the package and look at it.
- It turns out there is this strange building in many cities where they have lots of books that you can borrow, for free. And then when you're done reading the book, they take it back.
- If you have a lot of books, and you ever change apartments or houses, you will wish you were illiterate.
So for a long time now, I have basically slowed my acquisition of new books to a trickle. This still leaves the problem of how to get rid of the many, many, many books that I have but didn't want. You'd think this would be easy, but I have a neurosis that makes this hard. You see, I cannot throw a book away.
I mean, of course, a book that is in good condition. If it's water damaged, or ripped up, that's one thing. But if it's in good condition, and readable, I cannot put it in the garbage, damage it, burn it, harm it, or through inaction allow the book to come to harm. Harlequin romance? Sorry. Can't throw it away. Crappy endless fantasy series with pathetic wish-fulfillment freudian plot treatment (and yes, Robert Jordan, I am in fact looking at you)? Can't throw it away. The collected speeches of George W. Bush? Well, OK, maybe I could throw that one away. But that's the exception that proves the rule.
I blame Ray Bradbury, and that I read Fahrenheit 451 as an impressionable youth, for this neurosis.
I tried bringing my books to the library and donating them, but they didn't want them. I briefly considered just shoving them through the night-deposit slot and making them suffer, but I decided that would be ethically bankrupt. I tried to sell the books for a penny apiece to the local used bookstore, but they weren't accepting new books.
So I had given up on getting rid of any of these books for a while. But recently, the perfect storm of a neat application and a neat internet service has allowed me to free myself from bondage to my paper masters.
The application is Delicious Library, which allows you to scan the UPC symbols on books, movies, games, and other media using the webcam or iSight on your Macintosh (or, if you don't have one, to just type in ISBN numbers). Once scanned, it fetches an image of the work from amazon, along with lots of other metadata, and lets you organize them and keep track of whom you have loaned items to. It'll remind you when you should ask for them back. It'll let you organize little virtual shelves, take notes, rate items. It's very pretty, and very slick, and I liked playing with it.
Now, most people might use Delicious Library to keep track of what they have and want to keep. I use it to keep track of what I want to get rid of. In addition to the aforementioned abilities, each item also has a convenient "Sell on Amazon" button, so if you have an amazon seller account, it's dead simple to list a lot of items.
At the same time I obtained Delicious Library, I also heard about Paperback Swap on NPR. The idea is one that has been pursued by others before: list books you want to get rid of, order books you want to obtain. Members send each other books directly, the sender paying the postage cost ($1.59 in most cases). The site provides convenient address labels for each "order" as PDFs, and if the book is small enough you can typically mail it without even using a storebought envelope — just wrap it in the printed PDF label.
Most of the other services I've seen like this charge a "service fee," which makes them not terribly interesting. At least for now, there are no fees associated with paperbackswap.com beyond paying for postage. I've so far managed to get about 16 books I didn't want shipped to other people, and have many more listed. The odd book that I've sold on Amazon has covered the postage. As an added bonus, I've managed to pick up a small number of books that I actually do want on my shelf (Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics, in addition to being a great read, is also wonderfully slim and light, you see). But for me, it's not really about getting new books. It's about getting rid of the books I don't want in a guilt-free manner.
My total workflow, now is: pick the books I want to get rid of. Scan them into a group in Delicious Library. Set a reminder for 60 days from now, so that anything I haven't managed to sell or trade can ("in theory") be thrown away guilt-free. List the books on Amazon and Paperbackswap. If it sells or trades on either site, delist it from the other.
Here's the list of books I currently have listed on the site. If you want any of them, feel free to send me email asking for it. If you decide to sign up for paperbackswap yourself, you can say you were referred by paperbackswap - at - tleaves.com. They'll give me a book "credit" for your trouble.
I should note that psu makes fun of me for this whole thing on a daily goddamn basis. His latest threat is to create an e-commerce site on which you can obsessively list all the books you own but don't want, and then every so often the site will send you an email for one of them, telling you "Throw this book away already, you dope."
To be perfectly honest, I might sign up for that.
January 25, 2006
Lord knows that in my time I've said some mean things about fair-trade coffee. I've tried to like it, but every time I go buying it on my own I end up with something that tastes bad. Since my super power is the ability to generalize a single instance of disappointment into a scathing indictment of an entire industry, this led to some enjoyable ranting where I prove, using logic, that all fair trade coffee everywhere, by the immutable laws of the universe, must taste horrible.
The Green LA Girl, however, called my bluff. So now I will publically recant my earlier statements and say, without reservation, fair-trade coffee is awesome.
Monkey and Son
Despite the super-cool logo, I was initially worried when I opened the package. The beans are a glossy, unearthly black, as if they are made from licorice, or obsidian. The smell — in the bag — is also terribly unappetizing. It's a bit of a mix between burnt rubber and new car leather. But coffee beans are not potpourri, and the real test is in how they smell after you brew them, not before. On these terms, the Monkey & Son Krakatoa succeeds perfectly.
This is a strong, dark roast, but not unpleasantly burnt or overroasted, despite the appearance. It is, in fact, one of the most perfectly balanced dark roasts I've had. It is medium-bodied. There's none of the unpleasant, medicinal aftertaste I found with Café Estima. The flavor is complex without being overbearing along any one dimension. If I was forced, at gunpoint, to come up with a criticism, it might be that it might work better with just a tiny touch more sourness. But, seriously, I'm not sitting there thinking "Gee, I wish this was more sour." I'm sitting there thinking "Where did all my coffee go?" because it tastes good enough that if I'm not careful I find that I don't drink it, I gulp it.
So, barring some unexpected news item revealing that this coffee was actually picked by heroin-addicted sex slave orphans in the mountains of Myanmar: I was wrong, and I'm glad to admit it. There is indeed yummy, reasonably priced fair-trade coffee out there. Thanks for sending me the sample to find out. I will cease badmouthing fair-trade coffee posthaste. I have seen the light.
But I stand by all the mean things I've said about vegans. A man has to draw the line somewhere.
January 24, 2006
I took a trip out and back to California last week and spent more time than usual reading words off paper as opposed to in their more pixelated form.
This is a book about the history of the game industry. The book covers a lot of standard ground from Spacewar to Atari to DOOM to the Xbox with a strange detour through the U.S. military. Along the way there are profiles of game designers and other industry characters. The general point of view is an examination of gaming as it reaches the cusp of the big time in the mainstream American entertainment industry. But, the book is not a comprehensive treatment. I found it odd that a book that is ostensibly about how gaming is so mainstream completely ignores some of the huge forces that pushed the industry in that direction. For example, in the almost 400 pages of text, Sony and Sega are barely mentioned. In fact, except for Nintendo, the book paints a picture of the industry that is nearly devoid of the Japanese influence.
Overall, the book is an entertaining read about some entertaining characters in an entertaining industry. But, I couldn't get past the feeling that the whole thing was just a little bit too shallow. Also, I couldn't shake the feeling that while all of these people had created interesting products, they just were not all that interesting as people. In particular, the book spends what seems like endless pages talking about "rockstar" game designer CliffyB. Apparently, this person had something to do with the Unreal games. But, I have never heard of him, and he doesn't sound particularly interesting either as a person or a game designer. Surely some of these pages could have been sacrificed to cover something more interesting, like how a game like Rez gets built.
American Record Guide
From my new hobby to my "classic" hobby. American Record Guide is a magazine that reviews Classical recordings and Classical music performance. If you have any level of interest in this music, I would recommend picking up a copy. Not only do they review a staggering number of records in every issue, but they do large compilation reviews that cover various well known parts of the repertoire. These show up in an "overview" every issue. For example, in the Jan/Feb issue, the subject of the overview is the Shostakovich symphonies. In about 20 pages of text, they break down a couple dozen of the literally dozens of available recordings, and give you a good start as to where to start looking. The value of an overview like this can't be overstated. This is because the market in classical recordings is paradoxical in that even though it is tiny compared to almost all of the other musical genres, the number of available recordings for popular pieces is ludicrously large. This puts the potential buyer in something of a quandary. On the one hand, you can dig through decades of archival reviews of every record that has ever been made. On the other hand, you can buy something like The Penguin Guide and get a couple of pages of text for the major work you might be interested in. Neither situation is ideal. This is why ARG is so great. They manage to be in-depth without being overwhelming.
This character extends to the rest of their reviews too. You will not find any pseudo-academic ramblings taken from the reviewer's Master's thesis on string performance practices in the early Classical period here. Rather than trying to show you how much they know about the music, they mostly just tell you if they liked the record and they do it in a way that makes it easy for you to figure out if you'd like it. I credit the editor, Don Vroon, for this straightforward style. Mr. Vroon is nothing if not a straightforward, almost blunt, personality. He begins every issue with editorial rantings on various subjects, and if you think I hate the world, you should read what he thinks of it.
I stopped getting ARG for a few years while my Classical music buying tapered off for various reasons. But, after enjoying this latest issue, I think I might pick it up again. After all, I have this issue to thank for both the Shostakovich overview and the valuable information that SACD is big in the Classical world. New justifications for purchasing hardware toys are always appreciated.
January 23, 2006
Recently, I've been on a bit of a "casual games" kick.
The casual games market is on fire right now, and from the perspective of game design is kicking the tail of the "big box" hardcore PC games. It's like watching a bunch of nimble mammals dance around the legs of slow, lumbering dinosaurs.
I'm not speaking in terms of financial success here. I'm not a game publisher, so I don't know exactly how much money either of these groups are making. I can infer from the multiplicity of casual game developers that they are doing pretty well. But the more interesting point to me, as a player, is that the games are better.
Let's review. I'm about to paint in broad (very broad) strokes, here. Please stop and think before you post a comment saying that I am obviously a gay lamer, because Bladehunt: Deathspank 2: The Revenge was way better than some guy's freeware Visual BASIC "VBSudoku." Of course there are exceptions to every rule. I am comparing well-done casual games to well-done big box games in the abstract.
In my personal experience, the casual games:
- Are quirkier and have more personality (just look at Bonnie's Bookstore or Diner Dash).
- Are more convenient: I don't feel "punished" for stopping at a moment's notice.
- Are more likely to not be crash-prone, bug-ridden, and require a brand new $2,500 computer for absolutely no reason that anyone can explain.
- Are cheaper (average price: $20 vs. $50).
- Are less likely to install spyware on my computer.
- Don't require me to keep a CD-ROM in the drive for absolutely no reason.
- Are 87.5% less likely to have a splash screen involving a half-naked chick with breast implants wearing a chainmail bra.
One can ask the question "What makes a game 'casual'?" A snarky response is "Casual games are games marketed towards chicks." If this is true, then I'd say it is a leading indicator that women have better taste in videogames than men.
But of course, when I say "men" I really mean "teenage boys." The distinguishing feature, in my mind, that separates a casual game from a "big box" game is that it doesn't require a time commitment that only an obsessive 14 year old is capable of. I'd argue that, even though he would reject the label, Everett Kaser's puzzle games are all casual games, in the positive sense of the word. They are in no way lighter, easier, or somehow less "hardcore" than, say, Silent Hill 3. They just let me quit the game whenever I want, and don't punish me for having a life.
One common criticism of these games is that they lack creativity, that they are just rehashing some of the same concepts over and over. There's some truth to this. The line back from Atlantis to Luxor to Zuma to Puzz Loop, just to take one example we've talked about here before, is painfully obvious. But this isn't unique to casual games. To give an easy example, Knights of the Old Republic, an A-list game that many people (including me) enjoyed immensely, had a Towers of Hanoi puzzle, and it doesn't get much more derivative than that.Oasis. I'd heard it recommended, tried the demo, and liked it enough to buy it. From the 50,000 foot level, this game is to Civilization as Strange Adventures in Infinite Space is to Master of Orion. In Oasis, play moves quickly. The boring parts are all omitted. Regrettably, it's Windows-only. The developers indicate that they'd like for there to be a Mac port, but no port is yet scheduled.
On each board, you have to uncover squares to find resources, or deploy them. You can find cities, followers, ore mines, and a number of other items or terrains, and you can "spend" followers to work the ore mines to discover technology, or to build roads connecting the cities. At a predetermined time, the barbarian hordes invade. The better a job you've done connecting your kingdom and researching technology, the more likely it is to survive the attack.
I showed this game to a number of other people. Unfortunately for me, one of them was Jonathan Hardwick who, within 1 minute, observed "Dude. It's MINESWEEPER." I hemmed and hawed a little bit, and tried to dodge the bullet. But here's the thing: he's right. Is this game deserving of the "it's an uncreative knockoff" criticism I mentioned above? Have I been taken for a ride? Did I spend my hard-earned $20 on a humilating sham?
No, I did not. Oasis is "Minesweeper With Stuff", in the tradition of "Capture the Flag With Stuff". I was taken aback for a bit, but eventually settled down, and decided that there's no shame in this. The graphics, the music, the sound, the plot, the additional gameplay mechanics, and the difficulty all combine to make this more than the sum of its parts. I paid $20 for a jazzed up version of Minesweeper, and I'd do it again. I plan on paying $20 for Diner Dash, a jazzed up version of Tapper. That's the thing with jazz. Sometimes it doesn't matter if the theme is simple, as long as the improvisations are good.
I can't blame anyone for being impressed with the big box dinosaurs. There's grandeur in dinosaurs, and there's grandeur in the big box games, with their built-by-committee mis-en-scenes, their baroque, sent-from-1994 full motion videos, and their seemingly endless committment to supporting bleeding-edge technologies, even at the cost of shrinking their own market and degrading the average user's out-of-the-box experience. I play the dinosaur games, too, sometimes.
But if you asked me to lay my money down and guess where mainstream PC gaming is going to be in 10 years time?
I'm betting on the mammals.
January 19, 2006
I have always had a personal rule about Chinese Food places. If they have pictures of the food, they should be avoided. This goes along with some other rules, like Chinese Restaurants in shopping plazas tend to be marginal.
These two rules kept me from trying Tasty in Shadyside for the first several years of its existence. This was my loss, because for the next several years, Tasty was the staple Chinese place near CMU in Pittsburgh. The dish that hooked me was the Scrambled Eggs and Roast Pork. This is the sort of thing my mom used to make at home, but which I had never seen in a restaurant. The rest of the menu was a great mix of Catonese dishes, good vegetables, noodles, seafood, lunch boxes and so on. They also had a standard American Chinese gloppy food menu, but I never ordered from it.
Then a year and a half ago Carol, the owner sold out and the place came under new management. Rose Tea opened at about the same time, so I had not been back to Tasty for a long time.
I am now happy to report that Carol and her food pictures are back. The new place is in Squirrel Hill and is called Ka Mei. It's where the freakish kosher Chinese Food and Shawarma place used to be. All in all, this is a good change.
The place serves the same home style Cantonese food as Tasty did. They've added a few new things, like Congee (rice porridge) and a wider assortment of vegetables. I was happy to become requainted with my eggs and pork. I had not realized that I had missed the dish so much. Squirrel Hill is now in the great position of having two distinct regional Chinese places. This is good news indeed.
Oh, the new place has the American menu too... avoid it.
January 18, 2006
Just a quick note to say happy birthday to Robert Scoble who is 41 today, and whom I met tonight at the Pittsburgh Blogfest. A splendid time was had by all. Drinks were drunk, cake was eaten, and Cindy from My Brilliant Mistakes and I have an evil plan for holding a panel tasting of bourbon. Stay tuned.
January 17, 2006
Here's an easy one for parties: liver paté to top crostini.
Liver is misunderstood and maligned. It can have a strong taste, but doesn't have to be completely overwhelming. Part of the problem is that it's served often just fried up in a pan, which is totally uninteresting. Instead, do just a little easy work and you can have a great appetizer in no time at all.
Pour about 1/4 cup of olive oil into a cast iron skillet. Chop up a medium onion (or a large one, if you're making a lot), and add to the hot oil at low-medium heat. Sweat them for 10 minutes.
To the pan, add a couple of anchovies, and some pepper flakes. Just a little bit of the pepper goes a long way in this recipe, because of how we're preparing it. A teaspoon is fine, two teaspoons will taste somewhat hot to most people.
To the pan add your liver. If you can afford it, and have them handy, use duck or goose liver. If, like me, you don't usually have duck or goose livers in your house, chicken liver is a fine substitute — it's cheap, easy to get anywhere, and is fairly light. If you want a stronger taste, you can use veal liver. Beef liver will be too strong for this recipe. If you used a small onion, add a half of pound of meat. If you used a large onion, add a pound. The first time you make this recipe, I suggest you start small.
You're going to cook the liver at medium heat for about 10 minutes total, turning every few minutes.
Normally, if you cooked meat this much it would dry out. But we have a secret weapon. After 10 minutes, add some cheap but drinky red wine, between 1/4 and 1/2 cup. You're going to continue cooking until the liquid thickens noticeably.
At that point, take it off the heat, and drop the whole mess in a cuisinart. pulse until you have a thick, rustic paté. Don't purée it into submission. You want to get rid of the obvious lumps, but not liquefy it. If you do it right, it should have the consistency of coarse, stone-ground mustard. While it's in the cuisinart, add salt and pepper to taste.
This will keep in the refrigerator for a day or two, but it is wonderful if you can manage to serve it hot, on crusty, stale, slightly burnt italian toast. If you're serving liver paté at a party you should probably also have something bland and tasteless around so that your vegetarian guests will have something more in line with their desires. Perhaps you could spoon some Old El Paso salsa from a jar onto some toast for them. That might work.
People will tell you that they don't eat liver because it's unhealthy. Unless you are planning to eat this dish every day of your life, or unless you have a preexisting cholesterol problem, you should ignore these people with wild abandon. Don't spend your life in fear. Eat dangerously. Buon appetito!
January 16, 2006
As I mentioned last week, I was out of town. Specifically, I was in San Francisco. Every day and night, I ate at fabulous trendy restaurants. I walked around a vibrant, young, exciting city. I gained five pounds. And when it was all over, I took the red-eye back to Pittsburgh on a cold, dark, wet Saturday, landing at 6 in the morning.
This felt pretty depressing.
I would have felt this way even if it wasn't raining. The fact that it was a dark and ugly morning just accentuated the mood. Now, I can't speak for anyone else, but I have this feeling when I return home from anywhere. It's the ultimate expression of "the grass is always greener" syndrome. It doesn't particularly matter where I go. When I go to LA, I think about moving there so I could have Roscoe's chicken and waffles every day. Every time I visit Toronto, I consider whether it would be feasible to get a work permit for Canada; then I could have breakfast at Bonjour Brioche all the time. And it's got nothing to do with how cool the places are: I've even felt this way after driving back from Toledo. I mean, really. Toledo.
So although San Francisco has real attractions and advantages over Pittsburgh, I have learned through experience that what I'm really feeling is an emotion that has nothing to do with how cool the place I just left was. It's simply that when you travel, it's easier to see (or remember) only the good things about a place, and not the other side of the coin.
Although I felt a bit down, I was prepared. I had anticipated this feeling. And I had a plan.
By 6 am, the Strip district in Pittsburgh is starting to come to life. By 6 am, La Prima Espresso is open. It's the best coffee shop in town and would be among the best if you transplanted it to any city in the world outside of Rome. I drove into town and hit La Prima at 7. A proper cappuccino — unspoiled by the asinine Seattle tradition of "pour airy foam on the coffee until it is ruined" — started the day. Antonio, next door, was baking sfogliatelle; I had one there, and took one to go. Napolitan sfogliatelle traditionally have this citrus-cheese filling that I despise. Often, they have little bits of candied orange peel in them that I don't like, either. Antonio's aren't like that: the filling is subtle, only a little sweet, and matches perfectly with the crunchy, striated shell. They're not traditional; they're merely perfect.
I walked down the street and into Penn Mac, where the Saturday morning rush at the cheese counter hadn't yet begun. A hunk of Rosso Sini, a medium-bite sheep's milk cheese, was the first choice. Danish fontina was on sale, so that went in the basket too, along with some French butter and oil-cured olives. Across the street, Sunseri's Sunrise bakery was in full swing. A loaf of crusty bread to go with the cheese and butter and, what the hell, a dozen hot bagels. I'll invite company over.
A line had already formed at Wholey's fish market (they open at 8), but I've always preferred Benkovitz, on the other side of the Strip. It's a little more expensive, but something about the atmosphere there appeals to me. I dove into Prestogeorge to check out the specials, and then walked back up to my car. Passing Enrico's bakery, I stopped in to say hi to Larry, and get some of the best of all possible coconut macaroons, anywhere in the entire world. Larry's making sfogliatelle now, too, so of course I had to have one there, too. His sfogliatelle are larger than Antonio's, and cost more, and have the traditional napolitan filling that I can't stand. But right out of the oven, they're great, filling and all. If you can get them hot, get them from Larry, otherwise go back up the street to Il Piccolo Forno and Antonio.
With a steaming sfogliatelle in my hand (and mouth), the light drizzle of cold rain was no longer bleak and depressing. It was a refreshing counterpoint, a tonic, brisk and pleasant. If I was eating this sfogliatelle in a 70 degree summer, it would just be good. But walking down a dark street in a cold January, it was like a magic talisman, keeping me warm and happy.
I was feeling much better about living in Pittsburgh by this point, and the sun hadn't even come up yet.
Benkovitz had just opened when I arrived. I was carrying a dozen bagels. Therefore, I needed lox and whitefish salad and pickled herring to put on them. Bagels require fish. If you can understand this essential fact about bagels, then all of life's other mysteries will fall into place by themselves. You'd think that you'd be better off finding whitefish salad somewhere in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh's most prominent Jewish neighborhood, but this turns out to not be the case. Benkovitz's salad feels like it was made by hand, with huge chunks of smoked whitefish, rather than being puréed into submission in a food processor.
Laden with enough food to feed a peck of people for a weekend, I loaded up my trunk, got in the car, and drove home.
So this is what I think of as the best part of Pittsburgh. I like it here. Sure, the weather sucks.
But that just makes the pastries taste better.
January 12, 2006
Soon after picking up my shiny new television, my old Sony DVD player finally started to give up the ghost. I bought this player along with my first DVD, a copy of The Matrix. That movie probably sold more first DVD players than any other title from that time period.
The 480i component signal from this player looked great, but the transport was getting too picky, and would not play some disks that I needed to play. Since I had been getting tired about obsessing about games and needed a short break, I went DVD player shopping.
Like most consumer electronics, DVD players fall into three categories:
1. Super cheap.
2. Cheap enough.
3. Almost stupidly expensive.
I have found two players in class 2 that I think are excellent.
When I first looked around, I picked out a player from Sony which had a digital video output (HDMI), and hooked it up. It looked like crap. The colors were all wrong, everything was too dark, and the picture was noisy, like someone threw sand at the TV.
Here was the first thing I learned: new DVD players don't seem to put out the same level for "black" as old DVD players. The TV had been calibrated to the higher black levels of the old player, making everything wrong with the new one. I fiddled with the TV until things looked much better. Then I fiddled a bit more. Then my wife hit me and I stopped. When it was all over, the Sony looked great. Maybe just a hair better than the old player.
This is all fine, but it got me thinking about picture quality from the DVD player itself. This is always a bad sign. I found this collection of DVD player reviews. Among other things, the page has a fabulous discussion of what exactly it is that progressive scan DVD players do. It also has helpful explanations of the kinds of picture artifacts that show up when they do it wrong. This site is a gold mine of information for obsessed DVD geek.
In addition, the latest batch of reviews spoke highly of a very interesting piece of hardware. The Oppo DVD Player was said to do an excellent job on deinterlacing and scaling. As a bonus, it can also play video files that you burn onto a DVD-R. So you can play video from your computer without bothering to author a full-on DVD.
For various reasons, I hate playing video from my computer. Hooking the computer up to the TV is just too painful. And watching them on the machine itself is no fun (small screen, crappy sound). I want to watch the video on my TV with my remote control and my nice stereo system. The Oppo would let me do this and be a great DVD player as well. But, it was from a company I had never heard of, and the player itself seemed a bit rough around the edges. I resisted. Then someone in the office got one. I resisted further. But to no avail.
The Oppo is about what I expected. What it lacks in polish it makes up for in performance. The picture is as good or slightly better than the Sony. It is softer, but smoother with fewer obvious scaling artifacts, especially on edges. In addition, there are little touches that are nice. Navigation through the player menus and DVD menus is much faster. Layer changes are not as obvious. The transport is quieter, and doesn't make as many little whiny noises as the Sony. Finally, playing my own disks is just great.
On the whole, I can happily recommend both of these players to those who are looking for this kind of toy. It's going to be hard to decide which one to keep.
January 11, 2006
I am in San Francisco this week, so Tea Leaves may be updated less frequently than usual. We will return to our regularly scheduled kvetching on Monday.
January 10, 2006
Earlier this week, I tried the Beta of the new tool from Adobe called Lightroom. The lesson I learned was: never try new tools.
On the surface, the beta appeared to work pretty well. Import was reasonably fast, and the application seemed to support my workflow well. It takes a bit more time to bring your photos in, but it keeps a preview image around in its library so that the library will stay usable as a meta-database even if the pictures themselves go offline. This allows you to keep the library on your laptop (say) and archive the pictures to other larger external drives or DVD. Perfect.
Then I tried to run Photoshop. Crash.
I quit Lightroom. Tried to run Photoshop again. Crash. Reboot. Crash.
I decided that I really should have tried Photoshop CS2 all those months ago for the new and shinier ACR 3. Install CS2. Crash.
I finally ended up rolling my disk completely back to an image of it that I made a couple of weeks ago. Then Photoshop CS2 launched fine. Then I hit round two of my torture.
I almost got my old script working. But something about the interface between Bridge and Photoshop is not right on my machine. Whenever I run the script Photoshop crashes on quit. In fact, when I run the script that I based my work on (Image Processor), the same thing happens.
I wonder if rolling my disk back again would fix that.
Lesson learned: never change tools. Life is pain.
January 09, 2006
There are two types of men in the world: those who buy electric razors, and those who actually need to shave.
Here's what happens to me when I use an electric razor. I plug it in, and turn it on. I hold it up to my beard and move it around. Nothing happens. I move it around some more, and apply a little pressure. I can hear the tips of some of my hairs being trimmed, but nothing else happens. I rub it around my face and neck really hard. Now I still have a full beard, but in addition, my neck is all red and bumpy. I have managed to get razorburn without actually managing to shave any hair off.
So for many years, I have made do with shower-shaving: I keep a Gilette Sensor (or Mach 3) in the shower, and shave there. This didn't give me a terribly good shave, but it was better than nothing.
Now, I have a better way of shaving. It has just one minor problem: it's making me feel really, really gay. Not that there's anything wrong with that!
The better way of shaving is by using a shaving brush, good shaving cream, and a double-edged razor. This sort of shaving did not used to be considered terribly homosexual. That it is, today, can be laid at the feet of one man: Corey Greenberg, of the impressively obsessive-compulsive ShaveBlog.
Corey is straight as an arrow, but he has made shaving queer by consistently, over a period of many months, writing paragraphs like this:
Despite the Wee Scot's diminutive size, its bristles splay out to a surprisingly wide spread when you mash this brush against your puss, and the exquisite lather just keeps coming and coming.
Rest assured, I'm not picking out an isolated example. Everything the man writes is like this:
So I soaked my...badger brush in hot water, gave it a little shake to reduce the water it held to just the right amount, and swirled the tips in the Nancy Boy's glistening white cream.
Shaving, even real shaving, was not always this way. The closest shave I ever got was from a barber who ran the local Calabresi numbers game. You don't know trust until you've let a man hold a straight razor to your throat. That's the hidden culture of barbers: these are the people men trust to do these things. There aren't many real barbers left any more. The ladies at Supercuts are plenty nice, but I wouldn't trust them to shave me any more than they'd trust me to do the flower arrangements for their weddings.
The other fascinating thing about the shavegeeks that Corey represents is that they are a mixture of the masculine and the feminine. They take what is an essentially feminine activity (and please, don't argue with me about this — if you're spending hours agonizing over whether the proportions of lanolin to aloe are right in some unguent, you might as well be wearing a dress) and bring to it the very male techniques of obsessively cataloging, collecting, and comparing. Remember what psu was saying about men obsessively measuring their TVs and stereos and comparing them? The shavegeeks are doing the same thing, only they're comparing the loft and thickness of badger brushes, or the firmness of silvertip hairs to best badger, or they're doing comparative surveys of razor blades and shaving soaps.
Please, God of the ancients. God of my people. God of the high places and low, hear my prayer. I am very, very happy that I have found a way to get a better shave. But please deliver me from obsession. Deliver me from becoming a shavegeek.
My friend Faisal is well down the road to shave-geekdom, and I have made no bones about ribbing him mercilessly about it. "Hey," I'll say to him in an instant message. "I just had a really homosexual shave." I'm pretty sure he is sick enough of me saying this that he's ready to choke me to death if I do it to him again.
But although he may try to reframe it as being "Euro," there is no escaping it. Shaving this way, today, is very, very gay.
And that's OK. Let a million
pansies flowers bloom. The fact is, I am getting a closer shave than I ever have in my entire life. I don't have razorburn anymore. And massaging my face with the stupid badger brush feels nice. So if that means I am letting a little gayness into my life, without obsessing about it too much, I'm OK with that. Perhaps it means I can't go to Monster Truck Rallies, or something. I could live with that.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go play some more Shadow Hearts. I think I'm close to finding another Stud Card!
- Lots of shaving kit can be found at ClassicShaving.com.
- I'm currently trying the Taylor of Old Bond shaving cream. They have a number of scents. I chose "shaving shop," which was more or less the only scent that doesn't require you to have been buggered at public school.
- I am morbidly fascinated by the idea of disposable straight razors, like this. I'd try one, but I am still afraid I'd somehow manage to kill myself. Because I am not as good at shaving as the Calabresi numbers man.
January 06, 2006
Now that everyone else has already done their own roundup of the year in games, it's my turn to jump in, late as usual. At this point, there is not that much to be gained from just telling you that Resident Evil 4 was completely 733t or that Half-Life 2 pwns! So instead, I will declare 2005 the year that I became a crack-addled gaming zombie, and I completely blame peterb and tilt for doing this to me. In this spirit, here is a list of the top five games that I finished in 2005 which I would have completely ignored in 2004. Actually, what I mean is, if I saw the game on a shelf at my local emporium in 2004, and the guy told me he'd give me the game free, I probably would have turned him down and gone home and played Madden.
5. Shadow Hearts: Covenant (Japanese Gay Porn RPG)
Considering everything that this title has going against it (stultifying gameplay, long winded cut scenes with ludicrous dialog and horrific voice acting, juvenile "story", crazy collecting side quests involving porn), I can't believe I ever decided to pick it up. I must have decided that I had to make sure once and for all that Japanese RPGs were to be avoided. Of course, as we all know, I ended up really enjoying the game and buying more JPRGs. Life is pretty unfair.
4. Resident Evil 4 (Survival Horror)
Survival horror games are characterized by cheap scares, gameplay that is long on atmosphere and short on reasonable mechanics, stupid puzzles, crappy cameras and hordes of zombies that are hard to kill. Since I hate all of these things, I was hoping that Resident Evil 4 was different, and it was. This shooter wrapped up in a tweaked horror engine (moving and aiming are slow, there are still lots of stupid puzzles) is good for hours and hours of zombie killing goodness. And now you can play the "looks like ass" version on the PS2 as well!
3. God of War (Platformy combat game)
The first platform action game that I tried on my new Xbox was Ninja Gaiden. The game chewed me up and spit my ground up bones on the ground. And that was just the demo. Clearly I lacked the speed, coordination, and third-person camera decoding skills to actually play games like this. God of War is for all those old slow guys who want to pretend that they are 15 and still agile so they can beat the crap out of endless hordes of enemies. I had fun with that for a couple of weeks, but in retrospect the game is pretty disturbingly juvenile and stupid.
2. Lumines (Tetris puzzle game with a disco beat)
This one is a cheat because I didn't "finish" it yet. I don't like Tetris. I don't like puzzle games. I don't really like techno. I will play Lumines late into the night until my eyes bleed. 'Nuff said.
1. Ico (Platformy adventure/puzzle game)
Slow pacing, a crappy third person camera, and a seemingly endless puzzle-filled escort quest. I suffered a lot with this game. But reaching the end, I was surprised to find out that a video game can actually generate an emotional response more complicated than adrenaline filled euphoira. Since this is a list of 2005 games, I also have to include Shadow of the Colossus which provides a similar experience, though the game is drastically different in construction and execution.
An optimist would look at this list and declare that I have grown in my appreciation of the craft and art of the video game, and am now more open to new experiences, rather than being closed up in the narrow genres that I used to enjoy. They might be right. I even bought Indigo Prophecy, although I'm not that far into it yet. Madden and Halo are still more fun though.
January 05, 2006
It is just completely wrong that Shadow Hearts: Covenant has a "T for Teen" rating.
Surely, Mr. Sommelier alone is worth at least 2 months of therapy, all by himself. Click to see the picture, if you dare, but don't say I didn't warn you.
January 04, 2006
Today, psu discovered that he had an extra copy of Miles Davis' seminal jazz recording Kind of Blue. So, he gave it to me. My last copy of this was a cassette tape that I lost some years ago, and I never got around to repurchasing it.
But I'm one of those people who always look a gift horse in the mouth. What I should have done was just say "Thank you." But I couldn't help it. Almost instinctively, my mind started generating responses to this gift that had but a single purpose: to make psu cry. He even helped, and contributed one. Here they are:
10. Miles Davis? He was the keyboardist for Duran Duran, right?
9. Oh, my favorite part of Kind of Blue is that drum cadence where the guys in the zoot suits all whirl their girls around, right before the "everybody start to swing!" chorus.
8. I remember exactly where I was when I heard that Miles Davis had died of a heroin overdose.
7. Bop has been so influential. I mean, the impact on Cyndi Lauper's classic "She Bop" alone is immeasureable.
6. Kind of Blue pioneered a trance-like "modal" jazz sound. Later, people decided that modeless interfaces were better.
5. Thanks so much for this album! In return, I want to give you this recording of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus performing their tribute to Blind Lemon Jefferson, Kind of Pink.
4. Oh! Wait! I know this "So What" song. The Kenny G version is smokin'!
3. I read the liner notes, but they were kind of boring, and I couldn't find the lyrics. What's up with that?
2. When I listen to this in my audio room on my Krell amp and my Martin Logan speakers, wired with Monster cable and using only the finest power conditioners to avoid AC noise, the soundstage lacks depth, and the transparency of some of the brass is a bit gritty. Overall, I'd say this recording is sub-par.
1. It's sort of weird — I heard this live, and it was as if it were a totally different song.
- Really, if you don't already own a copy of this album, you should.
January 03, 2006
Regular readers will recall that I have recently forked over a large amount of cash on a piece of A/V equipment. I gave up a small piece of my soul for a Sony television larger than my entire living room. Well, it's really only as large as one wall of the living room, but you know what I mean. I believe that this was a good purchase, and DVDs have never looked so nice.
Of course, I made the mistake of reading the Internet forums about the TV.
There is a force in the universe that binds the dork hobbyists of the world together in a giant hive-mind. This force is more powerful than any human emotion. More powerful than any level of rationality. More powerful than the millions of years of evolution that have guided our speces to the point where we can create moving images from an assembly of millions of microscopic mirrors. This force is distributed dork hobbyist OCD.
Imagine if you will the common dork in his (it's always a guy) natural habitat. He is sitting in his living room with his new toy. For the purposes of this article, we can assume that the new toy is a big screen television, but this detail is not important.
The toy has just been purchased and is being integrated into the web of toys that occupy the living room. What the dork most wants now is to sit down and enjoy the toy. Unfortunately, this enjoyment will never occur. Just as the device is hooked up and configured, the room will be filled by the call of all the other dorks in the universe pleading with our hero to provide an evaluation of the new toy so that all may bask in the glory of his new purchase. These messages will work at a subliminal level to make the dork critique the device, rather than enjoy it. He will feel the need to calibrate, test, and calibrate some more. Soon, the device will be used to do nothing but process the same "test" material over and over again, ad nasuem. In the end, even the smallest fault in the device under test will be amplified into a fatal flaw. Enjoyment of the device now impossible, the dork's only recourse is to search the world for another latent object which will perform better than the one he bought.
And that was before we had the Internet.
The Internet has acted like a parabolic dish that has captured and focussed the force of dork OCD into a single point of overwhelming power. The week that I bought my TV, I found a single set of forum threads about it that contained about ten thousand messages. The evolution of the thread is fascinating. The first few hundred messages are about where one might obtain the TV. The next few dozen are overwhelmingly positive messages from ecstatic owners of new televisions. Then, a couple of small questions appear about this or that small problem. A color balance error in the shadows, a strange non-uniformity in the color while the TV warms up, strange compatibility issues with the HDMI ports. These pass by almost unnoticed, at first, but at this point the seeds of future discontent have been planted.
Soon, the floodgates open, and the thread is inundated with messages from people who swear up and down that the blacks are not uniformly black, and this is a fatal flaw, and why isn't Sony doing anything about it and all you have to do to see this is watch the televsion in the dark while it is set to an input that has nothing hooked up. Some people see blue splotches. Some people see green. A few see other colors. People are soon taking pictures of their televisions set to an input with no active signal in a pitch dark room. The television is declared fatally broken because of a display artifact that appears when you are not watching TV.
This is the power of WWDDOCD. It can take grown men with advanced degrees and chew up their souls to such an extent that they are reduced to sitting alone in the dark watching a television that is hooked up to nothing but the power socket and the air around him. Truly the universe is a cruel place.
January 02, 2006
Every time I've tried fair trade coffee, I've had bad luck. But Green LA Girl has good things to say about it, and I like the way she writes, so I will keep trying it until I find a good one.
Today the Starbucks downstairs from my office was selling Café Estima, their fair trade blend, fresh. So I had to get a cup to try it out.
My initial impression was nice: it has a light body, and seemed to avoid the overburnt taste that many Starbucks blends have. The body is light, almost thin, but that's not such a bad thing. The front notes, in other words, were all good. The middle taste was not very daring, but that's ok. I like a bit of a sour note in my coffee, and this didn't have really any boldness on that front at all. But it was still drinky.
On the back end, however, Café Estima loses big time. It's bitter. I don't mean bitter as in "coffee," which is good, but bitter as in "medicine," which is bad. The overall effect was that I was wondering who had snuck into Starbucks and dosed my coffee with stale quinine. Worse, the taste lingers for a long, long time. The only solution is to drink more, thus overwhelming the finishing taste, until you swallow, or to eat or drink something else afterwards. "I need to eat something else to get the taste of this coffee out of my mouth" isn't my idea of a fabulous taste extravaganza.
I'll keep looking for a good fair trade coffee. Starbucks "Komodo Dragon" roast is quite good. They call that a "pacific ring" coffee, which for all I know, probably means the raw coffee beans are picked by heroin-addicted sex-slave orphans in Myanmar. Therefore, my working theory is still "oppression and exploitation makes the coffee taste better."