February 28, 2006
You can spend a lot of money on stuff with which to make tea, if you want too. There are lots of kettles available in steel and copper. There are piles of teapots for purchase in all kinds and colors. There are all sorts of noodley, fiddly tea type things that invariably end up in the bottom drawer, unused and forgotten. I have a teapot, a nice little porcelain one, clean and white. I've stopped using it.
Tea needs room to swim as it steeps. My teapot has a little infusion basket to hold loose-leaf tea, and it cramps the brew (brewing without the basket makes the teapot painful to clean). Also, I can't see what's going on in there, and I often forget to set the timer. It's a lovely thing for serving tea, but it's somewhat unfortunate for brewing the stuff.
I've been taught these things by friends of mine who have been at the art and science of tea for quite some time now. My friends brew tea in a metal bowl with a plate on it, and then pour the tea out through a little strainer into mugs. It is worth noting, I think, that as their tastes in tea have grown more cultivated, their equipment has become ever more simple.
So: I was in the local cafe, eyeing the shelf of pricey things, and they had replacement parts for various sizes of french presses on display. One of them was the tempered glass insert, straight-sided and clear, and I thought: "that would be fantastic for brewing tea! If it only had some kind of markings..."
I bought some lab glass: a half dozen one liter beakers can be had quite cheaply, and make good gifts, besides. I can only make tea in metric amounts, but that's alright. The leaves swirl happily in there, and when covered by a saucer the beaker doesn't lose too much heat. I can see the tea, which is useful for those times when I forget to set the timer. It's also nice to have a touch of mad scientist littered about the kitchen.
Lab glass is available all over the place; I had good luck with Lab Depot, Inc..
I have two kettles: a beat up ancient stainless steel kettle that I keep on the stove at home, and an electric kettle for work. The electric kettle came from Adagio Teas, and it's worked out great; the kettle has a thermostat, so I don't have to worry about the water being too hot.
The good folks at Upton will sell you tea as nice as you like.
February 27, 2006
We went to Ohio to visit some old friends who we knew at CMU. While there, we made two interesting food discoveries.
First, we went to Trader Joe's. We in Pittsburgh are as as yet deprived of this "discount" froo-froo and prepared foods vendor, so we were happy to stop in to get some frozen foods for our friends and do some browsing.
You will recall that I have complaints about the mustard available in this country. In France, Dijon mustard is strong without being vinegary and has spicy kick from the mustard seed. Recently, I've been on a hunt for decent mustard on this continent. I've tried a dozen or so different kinds. Here is a partial list:
Without exception all of these mustards tasted like someone took a tasteless gloppy yellow emulsion and mixed it with vinegar and salt and called it mustard. Even the stuff that is allegedly made in France in the old French way is horrible. I can only imagine the people at the factories that make that stuff cackling with glee as they separate the good stuff from the tasteless yellow shit they ship to the clueless American rubes.
There is now a single exception to this rule: Trader Joe's Dijon Mustard. It has a very strong flavor, maybe even a bit too strong, and that wonderful kick that until now had eluded all other candidates. Since this is America, Trader Joe's will stop carrying this product tomorrow.
The next day of this trip, we made a trip to a great breakfast joint called Wally Waffle. Out in the middle of nowhere in Akron, this place has great eggs, good waffles and pancakes, and decent hash browns, ham and sausage. Therefore, it beats out every single local Pittsburgh breakfast joint that we've tried. Everyone who claims to make a decent breakfast in this town should go to Akron to see how it is done.
The big guy who came in from church with the light blue suit on, with matching shirt tie and shoes, also helped the experience a lot. What a great color. Highly recommended.
February 24, 2006
It started with one bitter observation, but ballooned, as it always does, into an entire night full of complaining and snarkiness. 50 items about the most common videogame clichés, attached below for your amusement. Some are funny, some are painful, and some are stupid, but each one is marked with its author, so you'll know who to blame.
Feel free to add on to the list in the comments.
51. Don't forget The grand list of RPG clichés.
50. Your space marine can carry 800 pounds of guns, but is unable to step over a small bump in the floor. [peterb]
49. Your night elf warrior can carry arbitrary amounts of treasure, but all other inventory must fit in a small box [psu]
48. Your uber-warrior cannot aim and walk at the same time. [psu]
47. Half-naked women on the package have nothing to do with the game [tomault]
46. Crates. Oh, God, the Crates [scottd]
45. Lava level [psu]
44. Ice level [tomault]
43. First person shooter platforming in a parallel alien dimension [psu]
42. Stupid boss battles [tomault]
41. Game controls map 86 different commands to every key in the keyboard, including function keys, and come with a confusing cardboard keymap. But in actuality, the only buttons you need to win the game are the arrow keys and the space bar. [peterb]
40. X-X-X-X-X-circle-X-X-X-X-X-X-triangle [psu]
39. "Press A to start" when the controller has a GODDAMNED "START" BUTTON. [peterb]
38. Boss impossible to beat unless you have the secret weapon hidden four levels back [tomault]
37. Your best friend and companion turns to the dark side. This means he gets cooler clothes. [peterb]
36. AI "companion" unable to path-find its way across an empty plain [jch]
35. Boobies [psu]
34. crashes with your video card driver version. [eli]
33. Hit the boss 5 times to make the actual Boss pop out of the anus of the outer boss. [psu]
32. Final Zelda Fantasy XIX: Super Sonic Mario Blaster edition [tomault]
31. "..." [psu]
30. "Mature" label means your avatar rapes and kills prostitutes. [peterb]
29. white, cyan, magenta, black. [eli]
28. Hero's village: destroyed [scottd]
27. Amnesia. [scottd]
26. You start on a trivial mission and end saving the world from Certain Doom [tomault]
25. Long destroyed evil returns from the grave [tomault]
24. Fly, run, jump, grappling hook jump, run, fly, jump, collect a key [psu]
23. The game's opening cutscene shows the protagonist watching a game's opening cutscene. [peterb]
22. The Mighty McGuffin of Foobar [scottd]
21. "Help! Leon! Help!" [psu]
20. Evil master villian you killed last game returns in this one as henchman of even more evil master villian [tomault]
19. Fight, fight, fight, parry, parry, parry. [peterb]
18. Fight, fight, fight, parry, parry, parry, ..., POWER MOVE [psu]
17. Magic pup-tents that heal your entire party [rlink@DEMENTIA.ORG]
16. Save die swear load die swear load die swear load YES!!! save [scottd]
15. have to enter an alebraic formula to make your function hit all of the enemy. [eli]
14. In video games, priests actually are useful, and don't molest your children. [peterb]
13. Squad AI can break the door down, throw the flash grenade and then blow themselves to bits with friendly fire and the real grenade. [psu]
12. The first enemies you encounter are always rats. You'll see. [peterb]
11. Fire, Earth, Water, and Air [scottd]
10. Blind, Mute, Sleep, Confuse, and Poison [rlink]
9. Meteo [rlinkG]
8. A scruffy character of dubious origin sets out on an epic journey through the empire where the choices you make will turn her towards either the way of good or the way of evil as he discovers his true destiny in the history of the world [psu]
7. A stick costs 5 gold pieces [rlink]
6. A defeated rat will drop 2 gold pieces. [peterb]
5. hit, hit, hit, hit, kill, corpose turns into money [psu]
4. Even though you may have achieved god-like powers, there are still plenty of stores that cater to your utterly superhuman needs [scottd]
3. Villagers completely oblivious to your rooting through their drawers full of underwear in search of magical potions while they stand three feet away [scottd]
2. Even the poorest shopkeeper in the smallest hamlet has the 1,000,000 gp on hand to buy that enchanted sword you found in the dungeon [tomault]
1. Successfully carrying item X from person Y to person Z will occasionally give you a sudden epiphany that instantly causes your biceps to swell by 14%. [scottd]
February 23, 2006
These are not my famous biscuits. This is a recipe I found in Peter Christian's cookbook, named for a tavern that we used to frequent when we lived in New Hampshire. Use them for sweet or savory dishes. But don't eat too many.
Here is what you do.
1. Put 2 1/2 cups of flour in a bowl. Add a bit of salt, a little sugar (for dessert biscuits) and 1 1/2 TBL of baking powder.
2. Cut 2 sticks of butter into small cubes. Add to the flour then cut it into the flour with a pastry blender or whatever. When it's ready, the flour mixture should have turned into little balls about the size of a small pebble. This means the flour and butter have mixed well.
3. Measure out slightly more than 1 cup of light cream, or 1 cup of millk. It's better with cream. Add most of the cream or milk to the flour mixture. Mix with a fork. If it is too dry, add the rest. You want everything to stick together.
4. Roll the mixture out onto a floured board. Gather up the mixture and make it into a big ball. Don't work it too much, just enough so it all holds together.
5. Roll the dough out so it is about 1/2" thick. Cut circular biscuit pieces about 2" in diameter out of the dough with a glass or other circular thing of the right size. Or make them as big as you want. When you run out of space, roll it all up and do it over again until you are out of dough.
Put all the biscuits on a floured and oiled half-sheet. Or use on of those new-fangled SilPat things. Bake at 400F for 10-15 minutes until the biscuits are light brown on the outside.
You should get about 12-16 biscuits. This means that each biscuit has about 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of cream in it. Keep that in mind while you eat them.
February 22, 2006
The lesson for today is: shooting zombies is always fun.
There I was, lost and directionless, staring at all the games that I was not playing. So on a whim I fired up Resident Evil 4 and started fooling around with the Mercenaries mini-game. I had given up on this before, because it seemed hopeless. I just could not see how to shoot enough zombies fast enough to gather the points needed to advance in the game.
But, after a few tries, I started to get into the flow of the game, and actually managed to make some progress. This taught me two things:
1. Shooting zombies is always fun.
2. The Gamecube controller makes my hands hurt.
So, discarding the last shreds of my self-respect, I shelled out for the PS2 version of the game, and I am happily playing through it again.
1. The PS2 controller does not suck.
2. Real 16:9 for a nice big picture without zooming my TV.
3. Same tight zombie-head-blowing-up gameplay.
1. Blockier characters.
2. Lighting effects and textures are noticably worse.
3. Some of that PS2 jaggy and shimmering "looks-like-ass" filter comes through. But not that much.
Having spent more time with the game, I think it's actually the best shooter that I've played in the last year. The only one I liked better was Halo 2. Even Half-Life 2 comes up short.
Resident Evil puts together everything you need for a good shooter experience: excellent pacing, nice weapons, lots of exploding heads, and a nice long linear path without too many obstructions. The stupid bosses are a bit of a downer, but I know how to beat them now (even using only the knife), so they don't bother me anymore.
Thank god for zombie killing. How would we ever escape our slumps without it.
February 21, 2006
It was perhaps a year ago that I tried the demo for an early version of Star Chamber. It was a promising game, a mixture of space strategy (a la Spaceward Ho!) and card play (a la Magic: The Gathering). It was clearly more of a proof-of-concept demo than a full-fledged game at the point at which I tried it, and more features were promised "soon." I set the game aside and forgot about it for a while.
The other week, I read an announcement that Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga had been released for the Mac. Always interested in games I can play on my laptop on long flights, I took a look. And I would like to say to the authors of Star Chamber: "You've come a long way, baby."
The game is true to its original conception — space strategy game meets collectible card game — so there are no surprises there. What is surprising is the amount of polish that has gone into the presentation. And when I say "polish," I don't mean frills like full-motion video, or egregious 3Disms, but just in terms of a well thought out design, balanced gameplay, and consistent user interface.
Complicating matters is that every 6 turns there is a vote at a special location called the "Star Chamber". Each point of influence you have there gives you one vote; winning votes at the Star Chamber can net you special ships, additional culture, or outright victory. Determining the right balance of citizens to keep on planets to generate military might versus citizens stationed on the Star Chamber to act in upcoming votes is one of the central challenges of the game.
All of these elements would make for an interesting game even without the card-playing element. But the card-playing aspect of the game improves it.
I am, to be frank, not much of a fan of collectible card games. I like looking at pretty cards, but I'm the antediluvian sort who wants to buy a game and then stop buying it. This is the same reason I'm constitutionally incompatible with multiplayer online RPGs. A lot of the effort in the new versions of Star Chamber goes into simulating the trappings of traditionally CCGs; you can buy "starter paks" of cards, or "booster paks", and you even get to see their labels or wrappers before you "open" them. Most of this is lost on me, but I appreciate the finesse with which it was done.
The game itself is superbly balanced. The fear that one should have when hearing the game described is that it will not be a true strategy game, but rather the thin veneer of a strategy game wrapped around a collectible card game. Such is not the case here. It is a true hybrid. The best hand of cards in the world will not help you escape bonehead mistakes. The cards' strongest effects seem to be to increase momentum when one is playing the strategic game correctly. You're almost never going to win or lose a battle based on playing a card; rather, the cards typically influence by how much you win or lose the battle, which plays in to how many resources (ships, heroes, citizens) you have available to fight future battles.
I have a few minor complaints about the game. Although the UI is mostly good (especially while in the game proper), there are a few places in the pre-game setup where the navigation cues are inconsistent, and some of the naming is a bit odd (why choose "Gaming Lobbies" when the more accurate and easier to understand "Main Menu" is available?) But overall, I enjoyed the game greatly.
I purchased the Mac version on general principles, but Matrix Games and Worlds Apart graciously gave me a review license for the PC version so I could compare and contrast the two. They are for all intents and purposes identical, so you should not feel that you are getting short shrift by buying one or the other.
Star Chamber is a nice development for the strategy gamer: a game that is based on traditional mechanics, but which, through a little judicious genre-mixing, brings something new to the table.
February 20, 2006
I was interested to read the article titled Perfect Pot Stickers in your most recent issue. The beginning of the article, which described the pleasures of the perfect Chinese Dumpling put into words exactly why I have spent a large part of my adulthood trying to reproduce what I used to eat as a child.
I was disappointed to find that the recipe that followed this glowing description included a chart outlining which pre-fab frozen skins were best. Let me elaborate. If you have a Chinese store in your area that will sell you decent frozen dumpling skins, that same store, in the same freezer case, will have bags and bags filled with metric tons of frozen pre-fab... wait for it...Chinese dumplings!
Your recipe, which suggests making the filling and hand-filling the dumplings is basically telling your poor readers to do fully 2/3rds of the total work needed to create a tray of yummy hand-made pot stickers. But then they get none of the real benefit, because after telling them to do all this work, you then tell them to basically chuck it all and stuff their hard-won bounty into frozen skins.
If you want easy pot stickers, I have a better suggestion: just buy the frozen ones. They are zero work, and trust me when I say that you can find some that are good enough for you. My parents, who always ate the hand made ones (fully hand made), even eat the frozen ones now. They are even cheap. Buy five pounds and go nuts.
But, if you want perfect pot stickers (your magazine was unclear, on the cover it said "easy" and on the inside it said "perfect"), then read on. I have a few tips.
The key combination of factors that make for a good pot sticker are the texture of the dough and the taste and texture of the filling. The dough should be thin but substantial and just a bit chewy, but not doughy. Most of the frozen dumplings that you can buy come pretty close to this standard, but none are really as good as hand-rolled dough.
Making the dough from scratch is really not that much harder than using the frozen. It certainly is not an all-day affair once you have some practice. The dough is just flour and water, not too hard, not too soft. You divide this up and roll out each skin with a small pin. Think of it as a few dozen small pie crusts.
The second part of the picture, the filling, should be meaty, but not dense, and it should have a variety of textures and flavors in each bite. When my mom made pot stickers growing up, she would use about a pound of meat to make 50 to 60 dumplings.
Therefore, I'd suggest that using 3/4 of a pound of meat for 24 pot stickers might account for why you found your fillings to be too dense and meaty. I also noticed that you use a pretty small amount of ginger in your recipe. One and a half teaspoons is barely visible at all, and certainly will not have much impact on the flavor. I would suggest increasing the amount to three or four tablespoons for a little extra kick. A bit of sesame oil in the filling also helps the filling from becoming too bland.
Generally, you don't need eggs in your filling if you handle the cabbage correctly. The key to making the meat lighter is to not only squeeze the liquid out of the cabbage (as you figured out, good job!) but also to put some of that liquid back into the filling itself to loosen it up a bit.
The ideal filling will have the texture of a light meatball, but with the crunch of the cabbage and scallion. In addition, the soy, scallion, sesame and ginger should mix all around in your mouth, making a dipping sauce that is any more complicated than a bit of soy and vinegar almost redundant. Still, I like hot sauce to dip them in.
One more tip: put a tiny bit of vinegar in the steaming liquid when cooking the pot stickers. It makes them nice.
Finally, the real chinese dumplings are the boiled ones. Ask anyone, the boiled ones are better.
I hope you will take my suggestions into consideration and perhaps amend your article. I have the raw material for a recipe that is pretty close to what my mom does elsewhere on this web site. Feel free to take a look.
Maybe next time you work up a piece like this, instead of all that exhausting testing you could just call up my mom and she can show you how it is done.
February 17, 2006
...and somewhere, someone is eating caponata di melanzana.
Melanzana, of course, is the beautiful Italian name for the fruit that the French call "aubergine," and which no one in America eats because it has the revolting name "eggplant." Caponata is a relish, of sorts, that uses eggplant to carry the flavors of the other items in the mix.
It's easy to make (except for one annoying part), delicious, and my version is good enough that it can make complete strangers want to hold you and gently sob tears of happiness.
Here's how to make it.
Things you absolutely need
- Two big eggplants, or three smaller ones. Asian eggplant don't work for this.
- Sicilian green olives. Nothing else works for this. No one knows why. Don't use those canned black olives; even having a can in the house will set up psychic waves that might adversely affect the dish. Chop the green olives coarsely, because chopping olives finely is a pain (or, use a food processor)
- 2 small onions. Dice them.
- A few cloves of garlic. Smoosh them.
- Sugar. Set aside a tablespoon
- Some red wine vinegar. If you use balsamic, don't use sugar. But I use red wine vinegar.
- Some celery, between 1 to 3 ribs. I find that less is more with the celery - usually use just 1 rib: you need some for flavor, but if there is too much the texture doesn't mesh as well with the other items.
- Some form of tomatoes, for flavor. I just use a tablespoon or so of tomato paste, because I feel using tomatoes messes up the texture. If you do want to use tomatoes, use canned whole tomatoes and tear them apart with your hands when it's time to add them. Don't use fresh tomatoes - they won't taste right.
- Salt, pepper.
- Lots of olive oil. If you use any other oil, you're the Devil.
- A cast iron skillet. If you don't own one by now, go buy one already. You need one.
Things you can add if you have them but you shouldn't stress if you don't have any in the house, in order of importance
- A few anchovies. If you put anchovies in your caponata, it will always taste about a hundred times better than your vegetarian neighbor's caponata, and they'll never understand why.
- A tablespoon or so of capers. This is where the name "caponata" comes from, but secretly you can get away without them.
- Currants, black or gold. Raisins hold too much moisture.
- Pine nuts. I never have any pignoli in the house, so I never put these in anymore.
The Annoying Part
Peel and cut the eggplant. It's overkill to cut it any smaller than about one-inch chunks, since they're going to shrink. Put the pieces in a colander and liberally pour some salt over them, mix, and let them sit for 20 minutes to half an hour. When that's done (they should be profusely sweating), rinse the eggplant very well. Then reach into the colander with two hands and vigorously squeeze the excess moisture out of the eggplant.
This step, along with the anchovies, is the difference between your vegetarian neighbor's caponata, which people just sort of politely taste, and my caponata, which results in shockingly inappropriate yet creative solicitations from dinner companions. By squeezing out the excess moisture, we're ensuring that the eggplant are going to absorb more liquid from the other things in the skillet.
The Easy Part
While the eggplant are sweating in their salt rub, put onto medium heat about 1/4 cup of olive oil in your cast iron skillet. Add finely chopped onion, garlic, and celery, and leave them on medium heat until the onions are turning translucent. Remove to a bowl.
Once the eggplant is ready, add more oil to the skillet, and add the following things in short order: the eggplant, the anchovies, and the tomato paste. Once it's all up to temperature, add some vinegar (not a lot). I usually prepare 1/4 cup of vinegar and add little bits as needed for moisture, and then add more at the end if it needds it. As you cook, the eggplant will start shrinking. When the eggplant has shrunk enough that you have room in the skillet, re-add your celery/onion/garlic mixture.
Now cook it until it tastes good. Maybe 15 or 20 minutes. Stir in olives, and capers and currants if you have them.
At this point you need to make judgment calls based on taste. If you used anchovies, you shouldn't actually need any additional salt. You'll have to mix in more vinegar, and sugar, and taste after each addition until you reach the right balance. Trust your tongue and you'll do fine.
It's typical that this will taste a little too crisp right out of the skillet. To be truly transcendent, you want to stick it in the refrigerator for a day or two. This will give the flavors a chance to soften and blend. Eat it with fresh bread.
Enjoy your caponata, and be sure to write me and let me know what shockingly inappropriate yet creative solicitations you get from dinner companions as a result of making it.
February 16, 2006
Firms spend millions upon millions of dollars conceiving, developing, building, marketing, and advertising their wares. They beg us to buy them. Their very existence depends on our whim and desire.
And then, when victory is at hand, and when the cash has been transferred, they show their appreciation for us by making it impossible to actually open the god forsaken package in which the item is stored. For this, someone must suffer.
I direct my wrath at the inventors of three banes of my existence, in order of the virulence of their creation.
1. That form of shrinkwrap that is absolutely smooth and tight over the CD or DVD box. So smooth and so tight that it is impossible to tear into it without damaging the box.
2. The mental midgets who seem to think it is necessary to cover every god-damned hinged surface of a box with a "security" bar code sticker. They don't do this in Canada.
3. Finally, and with the most hatred, whoever invented blister pack. Hopefully this guy will end up in a special circle of Dante's hell, permanently trapped in a gigantic container for a PS2 controller, without the jackhammer he needs to escape.
February 15, 2006
We went to a PSO concert last weekend. This is the first show we have been to in about a year. In the past, I used my PSO experiences to show why the cultural position of Classical Music in our modern world is somewhat shaky. However, this is not the whole story.
The program last weekend did not appear to me anything special. A short string piece by Elgar, the Beethoven Second, and a concerto by Brahms for violin and cello which I had not heard before. The soloists for the concerto were Andres Cardenas, the concertmaster, and Anne Martindale Williams, the principle cellist. Both are popular players in the orchestra. I think many of their students were in the audience.
The first few bars of the Elgar snapped me to attention. It seemed to me that the string sound in Heinz Hall was a lot better than it used to be. It's probably just that I have not been to a concert in a long time, but the arrangement of the strings on the stage did seem different. I swear they used to use higher risers. In any case, the Elgar got the night off to a good start. Nothing like a good slow movement in a string symphony to get you interested.
But the surprise of the night was the Beethoven. Since I am an arrogant and jaded asshole, I had generally convinced myself that only the later, odd-numbered Beethoven symphonies are actually interesting. It turns out that I was wrong about that. It turns out that even back in his second symphony, Beethoven was already writing music that would fit well into his Ninth. I still get a bit lost in the long and meandering slow movement, but overall I marveled even though I was sure I would not.
I have this experience once in a while going to concerts with the Orchestra. Typically it will be with pieces of music that I have heard before. The live concert brings a piece into focus better than listening at home. First, orchestras today play at an unbelievably high level of technical excellence, and this is much more clear when you see it live. This does not necessarily mean that the music is always better, but it raises your chances. Second, the live setting forces you to pay attention. This is especially the case when things are going well. If the music is grabbing your attention, don't sit there and read the program notes and let it all pass by.
In fact, if I were writing a beginner's guide to appreciating a concert at the PSO (which, nefariously, I suddenly am), I would advise that before you do anything else, you do the following:
1. Listen to the music in the concert once or twice on CD first. This is especially important for the larger scale works, which are really huge pieces of formal musical narrative and development. It really helps to have some idea where things are going before they get there.
2. Pay attention. Do anything to keep focused on the performance. Some people like to watch the players very carefully. Do what you need to do but don't zone out and read the ads in the program.
3. Do not, under any circumstances, ever in your entire existence as a human being go to a concert with an uncontrollable chest cold. Really, I mean it. One of these days someone will be physically injured over a coughing fit during the slow opening section of the Bruckner Seventh. Don't let it be you.
Happily, there were no cases of pneumonia in the audience this night, and the anticipation was high as the Brahms got started. The Beethoven had put everyone in the mood. We were not disappointed. During the slow movement, I mused about the difference between Brahms and Beethoven. Now, I know nothing about the technical details of music theory and composition. I only know what I have heard over the years. But it seems to me that Beethoven is about rhythm and harmony and development. Brahms is different. What Brahms will do is pull out a melody that makes you feel like you could just tear your own heart out of your chest, and since that melody will be the last thing you ever hear, you can die happy. That's just what I think.
By the end of the night, the concert had given me a warm feeling of optimism. It seemed to me that the music was in the safe hands as long as these people, who could play it so well, were able to continue to do so. The concert also put me into a bit of a buying frenzy. While shopping for a recording of the Brahms concerto, I found to my chagrin that I had no CDs of the Brahms symphonies. So I went to Amazon and looked up no less than two hundred recordings of the Brahms symphonies. I don't think there has ever been a time in the history of recorded music when so many classical recordings were so widely available for purchase. Maybe this is the strongest evidence that Classical Music is not dead yet. Someone must be buying all those records. Hopefully they were inspired to do so by a great performance by their local orchestra.
February 13, 2006
Let's talk about Valentine's Day. I'm going to take the long way around to get there. We're going to travel dangerously close to the confessional, but I promise we will eventually return to the subject of love, lust, and desire. Sit down. Make yourself comfortable. Have a piece of chocolate.
As some of you may be aware, I had a catastrophic hard drive failure on my gaming PC about a month ago. It wasn't the boot disk, so the main effect was that I lost most of the games I had installed on the machine. Most of those games, it should be noted, I never actually played.
I ended up reinstalling Windows, mostly to wipe the Starforce virus that the jerks who made Etherlords II infected my machine with. And after that, I began installing games.
I started with just the games I knew I wanted to play, either because I was reviewing them, or because I liked them. So: Oasis, Strange Adventures in Infinite Space, MS Flight Simulator 2004, Civ IV. And that was really about it.
This weekend I was cleaning up some computer discs. As I was putting the game discs away, I installed some of them onto the computer. At some point — when I started obsessively hunting through the piles of old disks for Mechwarrior 4: Vengeance, a game I knew that I had no intention of playing — the epiphany hit me, like a bolt from the blue:
I like installing most PC games more than I like playing them.
I mentioned this to psu, who accurately observed "You need help."
Spinning this so that it doesn't sound quite so horrible, I can claim that this feeling is like enjoying the opening of Christmas gifts more than the subsequent possession of the presents themselves. Really, though, my urge to install games is just another manifestation of the latent object fetish.
During installation, the latent object experience is at its apogee. The anticipation of acquiring the perfect thing is at a fever pitch. Satisfaction is nearly in your grasp. As you install a game, it is still perfect and unmarred by reality. You don't have to worry about the poor game design, or the crashing bugs, or the fact that it isn't fun. Once you actually launch the game, though, all of your illusions shatter. You are no longer playing the game that engendered all of your hopes and dreams, but instead you are playing the one that the developers actually delivered, which by definition cannot possibly be as good as the ideal of a game in your head. It's not the game that you're in love with.
We are in love with ideals because by their nature they are perfect. And not just ideal games, but ideal people. Around the world, right now, millions of people are experiencing the latent object fetish, where the latent object in question is "true love." You can, if you wish, transpose our frequent refrain about the desire for the latent object into purely Jungian terms. The latent object of true love exists before we meet the person we think we love. That poor person is, all too often, just a convenient surface on which to project our own desires. Succesfully projecting desires this way reifies our latent ideal of true love, and this makes us blind. When someone murmurs "You're the only person in the world who makes me feel this way," they are telling the absolute truth: the secret, of course, is that the person they are talking to is themselves.
Eventually, months or years later (always in August — no one knows why) the person you're projecting your desires onto fails to imitate your anima or animus one too many times, and the projection breaks. It has to break. It is inevitable. No one is as perfect as the "soulmate" who lives inside your head. That person that you've dreamed about, anticipated your whole life, the ideal: that person doesn't exist. When you discover that your loved one is not as perfect as the ideal in your head, you are hurt and disapointed. You feel betrayed. Alcohol is consumed. "I don't understand what I ever saw in him," you confide to your closest friends. And the next Valentine's day, you're murmuring in someone's ear "You're the only person in the world who makes me feel this way."
I have no great insight about how to break this cycle. The one thing I'll suggest is based on something somone said to me, once. "Love is not something you have. It's something you do." As long as we view love as a state we are in, or as something we own, we are, I think, doomed to failure by the thousands of quotidian disappointments that any relationship accumulates over the years. Real love, it seems to me, does not consist of being in a state of neverending infatuation, where everything is perfect. Such a state doesn't exist, and if it did it would be inhumanly boring. Real love is the sum total of the things we do every day to show the people we care about that we put their happiness before our own.
Have a happy Valentine's Day, everyone. Just watch out for viruses.
February 09, 2006
The other day at the local food emporium, I had chance to witness a terrible crime. There, on the shelf just below eye level, sat a prim little tin of kosher salt, labeled with an honest-looking brown sticker in a respectable handwriting font. This little two and some ounce jar cost four dollars, pushing the price per pound up near thirty. At my feet: a big cardboard box of kosher salt, three pounds, two bucks.
It's a rock, after all. But I didn't come here to talk about that.
Instead: curry powder. I sometimes stop in the seasonings section of the supermarket and wonder at the little bottles of pricey spices that sit there, cheerfully labeled. Curry powder seems to be undergoing something of a market segmentation these days: there are kinds, now. The problem is that ground spices don't age well, and those little jars have usually been kicking around the distribution channels long enough to be well past prime. A little voice whispers that it would be so easy to use them, but I say instead: I can do better. You can do better. Here's how.
You will need a pot. I've got a pretty good pot, but pretty much anything will do, although the heavier the better. You will need some kind of grinder; I've got a cheap blade-style coffee grinder, and it works great. You will need whole spices from a reputable source. Put the pot on heat, toast the whole spices dry (you'll be able to tell when they're ready: they'll smell fantastic), and then grind them up in the grinder. Use soon (or immediately). That's it.
If I'm making a curry, I usually go with a bit of cumin, a bit of coriander, a bit of chana dal, and some black peppercorns. Sometimes I toss an untoasted clove or allspice into the grinder, too. When all of that is ground to powder with a little (kosher) salt, I add a bit of tumeric and fenugreek (I realize that I should be using whole fenugreek, but those things are murder to grind).
Using the spices this way perfumes the kitchen, the house, and on summer days a good part of the block. There is more oomph and depth in toasted whole spices, and the flavors settle down into a complex warmth. It only takes a handful of moments, and while the spices toast I can use the time to lop up an onion and peel the ginger. Best of all: if you do it right, each time out will be a surprise, and with practice, they will all be fantastic.
Along with being an excellent source for spices, herbs, and other assorted flavorings (and we are blessed to have a storefront here in Pittsburgh), the good folks at Penzey's make a set of pretty good powder mixes for curries.
February 08, 2006
I've been in a long gaming lull for the last few months. I think this is to be expected. After all, I finished a Half-Life title. The last time I finished a Half-Life title was in 1999 and I didn't play another game until, what, 2003. Those were the good old days.
It's also the case that this Christmas Season was pretty soft for games. Gone were the blockbuster franchise releases of last year. Also missing were any major releases in practically the entire month of January and on into February. I can't remember a longer dry spell, but it's probably normal.
Then there was the Xbox 360 debacle. Microsoft generates insane amounts of hype and demand leading up to the launch, and then can only deliver less than half the required units for the U.S. market, while in Japan, huge crates full of consoles sit unsold on the street, in the snow, with people spitting on them.
And where are all the smoking next-gen titles? They are nowhere to be found. Apparently, Microsoft thinks that what I want to do is stand in line for 8 hours in the snow at the Best Buy to buy the $1000 "Pro Xtreme Gamer's Bundle", take the bundle home and then do nothing but bask in the warm glow of the Xbox Live Community control panel interface while I spend my microtransactions on t-shirt decals and downloads of remakes of 20 year old arcade games. I think not.
Here's a hint: the console will sell better if there are games available for it. Online is a fun toy from time to time, but unless you happen to have a posse of a dozen or so of your closest friends who can all be in front of the box at the same time every few nights to get some of that Halo on, it is not the sort of functionality on which you can bet your console market share farm. I think people want more than a gateway into online multi-modal integrated digital media entertainment.
With that latent object knocked down a few pegs even before it reached my living room, I felt lost and confused. I would "browse" in the game store and I could find nothing more interesting than buying the PS2 version of Resident Evil 4, a game I had already cleared twice on the 'Cube. Since I need to save what little is left of my self-respect, I have managed to avoid this particular purchase. I tried to buy an RPG for the PSP a few times, but could not summon the energy. Every time I went to the store, I'd just end up back home playing Madden and Mario Kart. My Steelers have beaten up on the Seahawks more times than I can count, and boy can I drive the "Rainbow Road".
After about a month of this, I thought maybe Guitar Hero would shake me out of my gloom. But I can't even build up an obsessive energy over this undoubtedly excellent game. I watch the game go by, and I know it's great. But after a while I just put it down and go watch a movie.
Maybe it's just that the other shiny new toys in my life (oooo, HDTV, go Steelers!) have taken over my affections. Maybe my subconscious knows that several hundred hours of sitting on the couch, manipulating virtual worlds with 16 buttons and 2 analog sticks is simply not going to provide me with any deep sense of enlightenment. Maybe I think I've seen everything there is to see. After the shooter, the platformer, the RPG, the JRPG , the movie game, the rhythm game, the puzzle game the stealth game and the adventure game, where do I go from here?
In his books on photography, Galen Rowell used to write about a concept that he called "image maturity." His idea was that when you are presenting new subject matter to a viewer, something that they have not seen before, you can present the material in a straightforward and literal fashion and people will think that the pictures are amazing. Think of, say, the first pictures of the Earth from space. Wow! But, as viewers become more familiar with the subject matter, straightforward representations will no longer hold the viewer's attention. The bad news is that the easy pictures have been taken. The good news is that this opens up the opportunity to be more creative and abstract in how you construct images. Rowell advised that when working with a particular subject, the photographer should be aware of this effect and manage his image-making accordingly.
I bring this up now because I think my head and maybe the gaming industry as a whole are mired in a long period of "genre maturity." In about a year or a bit more of concentrated effort it's possible for the motivated individual to work his way through excellent examples of all of the major game genres. Having done that, it can be a long wait before something new and compelling comes along. I don't think this is some conspiracy of mediocrity. I just think that the industry is up against the problem of finding new ways to present games to the player. Just as with photographs, as the genres mature, you need more creative energy to make something that grabs the player's attention.
The result of all of this is a lull. I don't think I am alone in perceiving this. Even the New York Times is reporting that people are tired of games. While the current feeling of malaise is unmistakable, I think it will be short lived. Even in a "down" year like 2005, there was a lot to be happy about. I look forward enjoying the result of the labors of the next great design genius. After all, Shadow Hearts: From the New World is coming soon.
Meanwhile, I'm bored.
February 07, 2006
I received a review copy of Geniu$: The Tech Tycoon Game some time ago.
I should clarify: the publisher didn't give me the game. Rather, the publisher gave a review copy of the game to another reviewer, who decided it wasn't his thing, because it wasn't an adventure game. So he gave it to me.
In the hierarchy of game reviewers, I occupy a very special ecological niche. Like a crustacean or some other bottom-dwelling scavenger, I only get review copies of the games that other, better reviewers aren't interested in.
Bitterness aside, I was actually quite eager to try the game. Let me share a bit of text from the game's ad sheet:
Fame and fortune awaits GENIU$! Be the entrepreneur who can take a small start-up to a multinational company as you combine invention, innovation and luck. Witness the key inventions of the 19th and 20th centuries & see first hand how they changed the world as you implement them. Experience history through an all new kind of tycoon-style game.
The game was not at all what I expected. It's quite good, and not a little bit strange.
Geniu$ is not really a sim game, as I expected. Rather, it is the shell of a game wrapped around a self-study course in physics.
On the surface, the game looks like Sim City. You're given an isometric view of your chosen starting city in the mid-1800s. The main effect the starting city has is to define the topology around which you can build your company's structures. The early part of the game revolves around building a power plant a factory (or factories), and housing for your workers. All structures must be connected by roads. Over time, you'll need to provide fire stations, water towers, and other Sim City-like services to keep things running smoothly. When all is going well, your factories produce goods (initially, bicycles), and you earn a little money to reinvest in the company.
This part of the game, however, is fairly shallow, and there really aren't many strategic decisions to be made. Where things get interesting is that every so often, an icon will appear above a building, and clicking on the icon brings up a problem to be solved.
If you solve the "quizzes," you earn money and other rewards. Failing to solve most problems simply results in failure to progress, and you can retry the problem later. In some cases, choosing the wrong answer can result in a penalty being assessed. The problems start off simple, but escalate in difficulty at a fairly steady pace. It was around the point that the game started asking me to calculate the average rate of acceleration of a piston with a displacement of 10 centimeters that rises and falls 50 times per second that I started to sweat.
I'm loathe to classify Geniu$ as an "educational" game, because that seems to me to be shuttering it into a box full to the brim with thoroughly unfun games. There's the odd exception of course (can I count the wink-wink-nudge-nudge section of Sam and Max Hit the Road where the lead characters were serenaded by talking heads reciting the history of famed naturalist John Muir, and a sign descends from the ceiling, blinking "EDU-TAINMENT"?) but on the whole, educational games are to games what tofurkey is to food. Geniu$ is an exception. I kept (and keep) playing it not because it is "educational," but because it is fun and challenging. On that axis, at least, the game is a great success.
There are a few minor complaints I have about the game, mostly centering around user interface. There is no notepad in the game, and no calculator. Particularly when answering the "quizzes", you are faced with problems that require a little bit of math, and it would be convenient to have a place to jot down notes and do simple calculations. "Why not just use the Windows calculator," you ask, and the answer is that the game doesn't play nicely with alt-tab. Eventually, I gave up and just brought a pen and pad of paper to the computer with me. This is somewhat irritating (not to mention messy).
These problems are, overall, just quibbles. The game is fun, and manages to put physics questions in a practical context that is believable and interesting. If you aren't frightened of doing a little simple math, and you have a Windows box, $30, and a pencil and notepad, consider trying Genius out. Just remember not to blow all of your seed money on sushi and pinball machines.
February 06, 2006
First things first. Steelers win! Woohoo!! Yeeeaaaahhhh!!!.
Now that that's out of the way, I think we all have to admit that this was, on balance, a sub-par performance by everyone involved. Let's catalog our collection of complaints.
While the refs did not blow it on the scale of the NE-Denver or PGH-Indy games, overall it was a pretty sad showing. A lot of boring ticky-tack bullshit. I don't think there was enough there to turn the outcome, and if you are going to win a championship, you have to win despite bad calls. Still, one expects more.
Who can remember even one decent one in the whole bunch? I was a bit mesmerized by how pretty everything looked in HD. But, from a content standpoint I can't remember even one ad that made me break out in even half a giggle. There were even multiple lame repeats from last year.
Finally, I think there should be a moratorium on go-daddy ads. The next network I see one of those on should be fined for the price of the ad slot. Jesus.
Neither team played close to as well as they are capable of playing. Watching this game, you'd have no idea that Pittsburgh was known for a punishing blitzing defense, or that Alexander was the league MVP, or that Seattle had one of the highest scoring and efficient offenses in the league. Pittsburgh managed to win because they got lucky and they showed their real selves a few more times than Seattle. That, and they had Hines Ward, my favorite Steeler by far, to throw the ball to whenever they needed a big play.
So, I'll take the win for my adopted favorite team (go Pats!), and I will feel happy for my adopted home town of lo these many years (I've been back here almost as long as Cowher has coached the team). But, I have to say that I've seen better football. Two weeks ago in the Championship games.
Go Steelers! WOOOHOOOOOO!
February 03, 2006
Next up is an item about ideological videogames, but before that, I just have to share my favorite comic strip's take on the "milk vs. soy milk" issue.
February 02, 2006
When I was growing up, every once in a while my mom would make this weird food. When it came out of the pan, it always looked like a big pile of steaming gray matter. It looked nasty.
Later, I found out that this was stir fried eggplant. Still later I figured out that it was actually pretty good to eat, so I asked my mom how to make it. Sure enough, when done well you can get to the same gray and goopy consistency, although these days it's gray and purple, since the purple asian eggplant are pretty easy to find. Me, I still can't resist calling the dish Braaaaiiinnnns. Here's how I do it.
The trick is to cook the eggplant twice to make sure it gets soft without sopping up huge amounts of oil. Eggplant is weird that way.
First, gather up the following:
1. 1/4 to 1/2 pound ground pork, depending on how you like it.
2. 4 or 5 of the purple eggplant. Cut this up into small cubes.
3. Garlic, lots of garlic.
4. Soy sauce, sugar, water, and Hoisin Sauce.
5. Cilantro, chopped up (optional).
First, take the eggplant cubes and put them in a large bowl. Add a couple teaspoons of water and some oil. Mix it up. Put the bowl in the microwave and zap it for 4 or 5 minutes. Mix it up some more, then zap it for another 4 or 5 minutes. You want to nuke the eggplant until it is really soft. It's easier to do it this way than to do it in the pan.
When the eggplant is done, heat up a pan. Add oil and garlic and the ground pork. Brown the pork, then add the eggplant. Mix it up. Then add a bit of water and a bit (a teaspoon or two) of soy sauce. Finally, squeeze the hoisin sauce into the pan. You want about a teaspoon. This adds a bit of sweetness to the sauce. Another option for this is to use black bean sauce and sugar, or even just a bit of sugar and more soy sauce. Do what feels good.
If you didn't get the eggplant soft enough, turn the heat way down and simmer until the eggplant is soft. Make sure it doesn't dry out and burn.
Serve over rice. Put chopped cilantro and hot sauce on top if you want to spice it up a bit.