April 29, 2006

Bonnie's Bookstore, Mac Version

by peterb

Phil Steinmeyer has released the Mac port of his word-hunt game Bonnie's Bookstore.

I might be biased, since I was a beta tester, but I found the game to be both pleasant and challenging. The art style is cartoony and fun. The game's graphic design has "marketed to chicks" written all over it, but don't let that stop you from playing — type in the right cheat code and you get to see Bonnie naked (footnote 1). The music is particularly relaxing and enjoyable.

The game itself is a word hunt. Find adjacent letters to spell words. When you spell a word, those tiles disappear and new ones drop in. The longer the words, the higher your score. Very long words will earn you "wildcard" tiles, and as you play new game mechanics (in the form of new types of tiles) appear.

In his blog entry on the subject, Phil talks a bit about the experience of porting the game to the mac, and wonders what kind of sales he'll see. All I can say is that when I have a choice between the same game on two platforms that perform equally well, I inevitably choose the Mac port. But I suspect I'm biased about that, too. I would be interested in hearing more from Phil about the experience of porting the game, and what he found positive (or negative) about the experience strictly from a software development perspective.

You can purchase Bonnie's Bookstore at Phil's site (although the link seems to be broken right now), or at PopCap Games.

Footnote 1: I am lying.

Posted by peterb at 08:45 AM | Comments (0)

April 27, 2006

If The Shoe Slips, Swear At It

by peterb

It was just last year, in my mid-30s, that I learned how to tie my shoes. Yes, at a time when most other men are getting ready to buy a Porsche, get a stupid little French-style beret to cover their bald spot, and maybe start visiting a tanning salon, I finally learned how to tie my shoes properly. It's not my fault, though: I blame society.

You Are Knot Alone

Apparently, I am not the only person this has happened to, because when I showed my newly-found power of shoe-tying to an associate, she realized that she didn't know how to tie them properly, either.

The way I learned how to tie my shoes, as a child, is as follows: do a bunch of stuff involving a rabbit and a tree and a hole. None of it makes any sense, but at the end, your shoes look tied. Take about 5 steps, and the knot falls out.

When I'd ask relatives why my knots came out, they told me, knowingly, "Well, that's because you didn't tie a double knot." And they showed me how to tie a double knot.

The problem, of course, is that double knots are stupid. They do indeed keep your shoeslaces tied, but they're impossible to undo without five minutes of fiddling. They're a pain. It's enough to drive a man to wear only loafers.

The funny part, of course, is that double knots aren't necessary at all. Just make sure you're tying the good single knot, instead of the stupid one.

Which Knot Am I Tying?

Here's the deal: if your single knots come untied, it is because you are tying a granny knot, instead of a square knot. Change one single gesture in your shoelace-tying regimen, and your knots will be easy to undo on purpose, but will not come undone when walking.

There's a simple test to know which knot you are tying. Untie your shoe. Tie a single knot. Lean back and look at it, and shake your shoe just a little bit. If the loops on your laces fall to the left and right, you have tied a square knot. You can stop reading now, and go do something productive. If, on the other hand, the loops on your laces lay along the vertical axis of your shoe then you, like me, naturally tie the retarded type of knot. Only intervention will save you.

granny knot

Granny knot

I'm right-handed, so the way I naturally tie my laces is as follows: I pick up both ends of the laces. I put my right hand over my left and thread the lace in my right hand around the left one. Then I make a loop in my left hand, and wrap the lace in my right hand around and through the loop. Since I went right-over-left both times, that makes a granny knot, which comes undone if a stiff breeze blows on it. You'll also end up with a granny knot if you go left-over-right both times.

Learning to not tie a granny knot isn't hard.

square knot

Square knot

The thing I do now is to consciously put the left lace over the right one when making the first twist. This was disturbingly difficult the first few times I tried it, sort of like trying to use chopsticks with my off hand. Now, after months of practice, it only bothers me a little bit. By doing this, you end up with a square knot, also known as a reef knot. It's much stronger than the granny knot, yet comes undone properly when you pull on one of the laces firmly.

I discovered this from the wonderfully singleminded shoeknots.com web site. It also helped assure me that I was not alone in my shoe-tying incompetence. Ian's Shoelace Site is also pleasingly obsessive-compulsive, and has slightly better diagrams. Thanks to them, I am on the road to recovery.

To those about to tie, I salute you.

Posted by peterb at 09:57 PM | Comments (5)

April 26, 2006

Moka Pot

by psu

In the wide landscape of available devices for turning ground coffee into an arguably drinkable liquid, the Moka Pot does not get its due. This strange device has the advantage of relative simplicity, and a long history of faithful service. I like them because they brew the coffee sort of inside out.

In the marketplace, the moka pot is trapped somewhere between the cheap plastic every day Mr. Coffee type machines and the high tech ultra-modern multi-hundred dollar espresso extractors that you can pick up at your local William and Sonoma store. I find its compromises to be perfect for my requirements. The coffee that it brews is stronger than the bitter thin product of a drip maker, but is not as potent as the thick, syrupy and often over-extracted shots that you get at your local coffee and takeout milkshake place.

I like to grind the coffee a bit finer than for drip, but not so fine as espresso, as I find that the device just can't push the water through in that case, and you end up with a mess. Mixed with hot milk, it makes for a perfect foamless "latte". Better yet, put the coffee in the fridge for a few hours and then mix it with cold milk on ice. When cold, the flavor of the coffee strengthens, and you get something much closer to the pure espresso experience.

I have had only two problems with moka pots.

1. The stainless ones just don't work for me. I could never find a grind for the coffee that didn't make either brown water or a hopeless thick goo that never really escapes the bottom of the pot.

2. I always end up burning the thing up on the stove.

My solution was to get a Bodum gadget that heats the water electrically on a dedicated stand, and is made of stainless steel and plastic which are both easier to clean than the aluminum. Yes it's overpriced, but in the long run it's cheaper than buying four regular pots a year.

So, if you want a decent simulation of espresso, and don't feel like putting out $400 on a stainless steel pump action double barreled nightmare machine, give up $20 on a Moka Pot. It'll get you close, and is much less fuss and worry.

Posted by psu at 07:23 PM | Comments (4)

April 25, 2006

99 Side Quests On Rails

by psu

The inevitable backlash against Oblivion has started in earnest. With early reviews proclaiming that the game was something between the second coming and the invention of peanut butter on sliced bread, you can't be surprised that a few people are deciding to stand up and call the whole thing nonsense. But, just as inevitable are freaks who go overboard.

That review, and others like it, complain about the A.I. and various issues with "realism" and "immersion." It's true that the A.I. in the game is pretty pathetic. But this was completely predictable. Any time anyone claims with a straight face that they have built a realistic A.I., I know that what that means is that they've built something not quite as fun as the Grunts in Halo. Anyone who actually believed all this crap about "Radiant A.I." deserved whatever disappointment they received.

People are also disappointed that you can't interact with the NPCs like "real people". There are only fixed scripts with fixed options. This is because we don't live in a world where a "real people" simulator exists. I find it amazing that anyone would expect a game to implement some kind of natural language based dynamic narrative system to generate realistic NPC conversations. Although I have seen it claimed that Bethesda had such a thing and "dumbed it down" before the game was released. Because ya know, if you had actually built the world's most sophisticated A.I. system, you would not want to actually ship it. I also think these people are working too hard to find complaints. After all, if you want something to complain about the NPCs in the game, just just look at the horrible facial models.

Finally, many complaints have been directed at the leveling system. Some hardcore RPG dorks hate that they don't need an Excel spreadsheet and optimization model to figure out how to max out their stats in the fastest way possible. This makes the system "shallow" and "simplistic", when if anything the system is too complicated and stupid.

Others don't like how the world levels with them. Running into bandits and goblins sporting awesome armor and weapons just ruins their gameplay experience because obviously they are the only ones who get to be bad ass. More whining about lost immersion tends to follow.

These people appear to be bitter that they read previews and advance press about the latent Oblivion and thought they would be getting some paradise of a game where completely open-ended gameplay was married with actual Turing-test-passing A.I. and a dynamic plot, thus creating the ultimate sandbox game where the player can do anything they want at any time and always get just the right amount of challenge and bad-assness at the same time.

Of course, the game is not like this. No one knows how to do make a game like that yet, and I don't think it's really that important.

What is important is that the game keep you immersed in what you want to be doing. This is what Oblivion does well. The game only seems like a sandbox on the surface. It's true that you can do the quests in almost any order. It's also true that you can interrupt the active quest and go do something else for a while, and when you come back everything will be waiting for you. But if you examine each quest on its own and in detail, what you find is that each one has its own small set of rails, and the game puts you on those rails and does not let you fall off until the quest is done. Whether you are traveling across the world to find a long lost artifact or just crawling through a dark pit of a cave, the Dungeon Crawl experience in this game is tuned and tweaked to perfection.

What Bethesda has done in Oblivion is to fit a few hundred linear quests into world that appears to be large and open-ended. You think you can do anything you want, when really you are just on one set of tracks or another. I think they deserve our applause for this achievement. If this is not what you are after, or if you can't make yourself care about these little tasks, then by all means avoid the game. Meanwhile, every night I can pick up the game, pick a thing to do, and go and get it done without a lot of fuss and worry. I can't think of any recent game that had this much content presented at this level of polish. You could probably play this game for the next year on the 360 without running out of things to do. Hopefully that's long enough to bring us to a time when there are other games worth playing on the system. For now, this game is enough. Well, except for the faces.

Posted by psu at 07:50 PM | Comments (6)

April 24, 2006

Kiss That Frog

by peterb

The little boy had been off by himself for a while while the rest of us were near the stream pretending to fish. When he came back had a net full of frogs.

"Now, you be sure to put those back," said his dad. "Well," the little boy said, "I have to keep one, because he peed on me. So I have to keep that one in the net, as punishment." Despite this, all six or seven frogs stayed in the net.

A little while later, I realized from conversation that some of the frogs in his net were mating. I heard the little boy telling some of the fishermen that the frogs "were on their honeymoon." "Lots of frogs seem to be on their honeymoon over by the woods," he said.

"Hey," I said. "Can you put those frogs on their honeymoon down, so I can take a picture of them?"

"Sure." He put them down. I got the photo.

The female frog began to hop away. The male stayed clamped on her back. The little boy scooped the two of them up and put them back into the frog orgy in his net.

It's not easy being green.

Posted by peterb at 07:02 AM | Comments (2)

April 19, 2006

DaNGer! DaNGer!

by peterb

I decided to try Adobe's DNG converter for the same reason that I can't help picking at scabs: I'm always curious about how a new workflow will feel.

This, of course, is because I am a dedicated amateur and wanker. If I were a professional, the chances that I would risk my livelihood on a new workflow before it was tried and tested would approach zero.

DNG, for those of you not aware of it, is Adobe's new semi-open standard for "raw" digital photographs. The theoretical pitch is as follows: camera manufacturers are each promulgating unique raw standards. Many of those standards change from camera to camera, so a Canon Raw file from a 350D is different from a Canon Raw file from a 30D. Propietary formats are bad! Photographers should keep all of their raw photos in DNG, which will always be supported, and since the standard is open, even if Adobe goes out of business someone will write tools to read and write it.

That's the idealistic pitch. The practical pitch is as follows: "Adobe tools don't know how to write metadata into all of these raw files, so we store them in "sidecar" .xmp files that have to be in the same directory as your raw file. Having two files is messy and bad! Convert all your photos to DNG, and we can put all that metadata inside the file. That will be nice and neat! Also, we like puppies."

This was, to tell the truth, attractive to me: I have always hated those xmp sidecar files, and I have always loved cute little puppies.

There's just one problem: the idealistic pitch isn't quite true. For example, Photo Mechanic, a program that, as near as I can tell, is written by three guys eating ramen noodles in Washington state, can manage to write IPTC metadata into just about every major Raw file format without resorting to xmp files. Maybe it's unfair to expect the guys from San Jose to do the same thing. But as long as I have Photo Mechanic, it's a hard sell to convince me that I need to convert to a new product to read and write metadata in a single file.

But, as I said, I can't resist the allure of changing my workflow for no particular reason, and since I'm currently evaluating several cataloging tools it seemed like a good idea to try out the DNG converter, since it would let me see how the cataloging tools handled it. I picked a couple of small directories, configured Photo Mechanic to invoke the DNG converter, held my breath, and dived in.

In terms of core functionality, everything worked more or less as advertised. My files were converted. The DNGs could be read by the cataloging tools, and by Bridge, and by Photo Mechanic, and just about every other tool I used. However, I found two problems that have convinced me that DNG is not yet for me.

First, the conversion seems to have lost some of the metadata in the CR2 files. Most of this is Canon-specific data -- the sort of thing that you might lose, for example, if you converted to JPEG (white balance, serial number, etc). The truly crucial metadata (by which I mean "IPTC keywords and creation date") were copied over correctly. So this by itself isn't the showstopper.

Here's the showstopper.



Now, let me be perfectly clear about what we're looking at. These are not the actual raw files. The fidelity of the actual raw file in the DNG is perfect: it looks exactly the same as in my original .CR2. What we're looking at is the jpeg preview that is embedded in the file. In simple terms, the DNG converter decided to "help" me by generating a preview that looks as if I opened it in Adobe Camera Raw and set all the checkboxes to "automatic."

While I understand the rationale behind giving me this "help," I really don't want it. By the time my photos hit the DNG converter, I have already done an editing pass: I decided which photos to keep by chimping at the camera. The preview in the CR2 is essentially the same as what I looked at on the camera. The DNG preview is garbage, regardless of how technically correct it may be, simply because it's not the same thing I was looking at on-camera.

I looked around for an option to just slurp over the CR2 preview, but it doesn't seem to exist yet. This, petty as it is, will probably keep me from making DNG an essential part of my workflow in the short term.

Posted by peterb at 10:03 PM | Comments (1)

April 18, 2006

Living in Oblivion

by psu

I have not been posting because I've been running my Breton/Dark Elf Mage/Fighter/Thief guy around in the woods looking for all the different things to do. I think I finally have a good feel for this game, even though I really still haven't scratched the surface.

Therefore, it is time to complain.

To be fair, there really isn't that much to complain about. This is the most engaging "Western" style RPG that I've played since KOTOR.

Where KOTOR attempted the standard Bioware two-branched epic journey story, Oblivion to some extent punts the whole "main plot" question by filling the game with so much other content that there are really four or five full games on the disk rather than just one. You could spend your whole life running around the world finishing the various "side" quests.

Anyone who knows me knows that side quests are not my thing. Put me on the rails to get to the end of the game and just push me along is what I say. Oblivion's major achievement is breaking me out of this shell and making me embrace the side quest, and even love it.

Two things make the various quests in the game enjoyable:

1. They are easy to find. You just walk around and they come to you. You can't walk 50 feet in the game without finding some dungeon to go into, or someone who needs this or that, or someone who needs someone else killed. I even found the Thieves Guild completely by accident.

2 Each piece of each quest is small. You can play through the ones I've found in one wage-slave night. You don't have to spend hours and hours of your life tracking down all the little keys and knick-knacks.

All that stands between Oblivion and gaming perfection are all the standard things that are stupid about "Western" RPGs.

First, the leveling system is stupid. It's not broken or fatally unbalanced or anything. It's just stupid. Rather than a few simple numbers, you have to keep track of 21 skills governed by a half dozen different core attributes (Strength, Intelligence, etc). If you manage your skills in the obvious way, your character will not progress as fast as if you manage your skills sort of backwards.

The way the skills/attributes work, you pick "major" skills that your character specializes in and the rest become "minor" skills that you would think would be de-emphasized. When you practice the skills, they slowly level up until some threshold at which time you gain a level. When you gain a level, you get bonuses to your core attributes based on the skills that improved. These bonuses are calculated based on all of the skills that increased, whether or not they were in your "specialization."

However, when you level is determined by how much your major skills improved. Therefore, it is actually to your advantage to never use your major skills until you are ready to level. So, building that uber-sneaky thief guy? Best to not sneak around a lot. You want to build your Willpower so you can create a fireball of death? Don't run around casting fireball or it will take you longer to get there than if you cast Healing spells on yourself a lot.

Basically, to maximize attribute gain per level, you want to specialize in things you don't do a lot.

There are two things to observe here. First, the real goal of any leveling system in an RPG is to get you to the max level in everything at some point in the game. Everything else is just show. Second, by making the show as complex and byzantine as possible, Bethesda has painted themselves into a corner where Fighter/Mage characters are running around in a cave with no clothes on punching things with their bare hands rather than fighting with swords and spells, all in the name of maxing everything out faster.

I say, just chuck it and replace it with R. Just make sure I get better and more bad-ass as I play the game. I don't really care about the details. I should be able to do everything well.

The other major complaint I have about the game is about inventory and resource management. My character can carry 5 changes of clothes, thousands in gold, a whole armory, a whole pharmacy, and ingredients for a state dinner. But, if I run across that extra book that puts my over that arbitrary limit, I have to suddenly do bin packing. This is stupid.

It's also stupid that it's hard to find money. It's not that hard, but it's hard enough that people resort to exploiting glitches to make sure they don't have to worry about money. The fact that people do this and still have a lot of fun indicates that this kind of resource constraint is not really needed in the game. It's just there so the old skool fan-boys don't complain about the game being "dumbed down". But, those guys will always have that complaint, so it's best not to listen to them.

That's pretty much all I have. The face animation and lip sync could be better (KOTOR was better, and KOTOR was creepy). Otherwise, this game is an enjoyable fantasy romp, as long was you don't get too caught up in trying to believe the world is alive, as opposed to pre-programmed. I don't think anyone has ever collected this much excellent pre-programmed content in one place before. You could play the game for years and never run out of things to do.

Pete should buy this game soon.

Posted by psu at 07:09 PM | Comments (5)

April 14, 2006

Diving into Oblivion

by psu

As it turned out, one weekend after opining about the viability of the "current generation" consoles, the Xbox 360 finally appeared in reasonable numbers. Suddenly they were everywhere. Coincidentally, I was getting tired of low resolution Madden 06. Yes, my defenses are that thin.

There isn't much to say about the console itself.

1. It's not really any smaller or better looking than an Xbox.

2. It is a LOT louder.

3. Wireless controllers are the best thing ever.

4. Why is there only 13GB free on my disk?

5. XBox live Gold: Meh.

6. Madden 2006: Madden in high resolution. No real complaints, but I'm not used to the new controls.

Basically, the 360 is like playing on a decent PC connected to a 50 inch screen, with a nice gamepad, on my couch. Who would want more?

I also obtained Oblivion, because the shooters currently available on the box that are not Halo don't really seem worth it. Why is Half-Life 2 not on this console?

I remember in my previous life when I tried to play Morrowind. I ran through the first hour, made a character, walked out the door of the character making place and was instantly bored to tears and quit the game forever.

Oblivion is a similar, but much denser experience. Here are my short impressions:

1. The beginning of the game and the tutorial level are very well done.

2. It's not hard to find things to do in the game. This makes it harder to notice that you've forgotten what you wanted to do.

3. I don't know what "radiant AI" is, but the NPCs in this game say the same shit over and over again just like the NPCs in all the other games. They even share their stock phrases with other people miles away. The difference is that if you put them together in a room, they say the same shit to each other until you talk to one of them to make them shut up. Not impressive.

4. The visuals are excellent, except for two issues. First, detail doesn't seem to gradually fall off with distance. Instead, the world is tremendously detailed up to a certain threshold, at which time the detail falls off a cliff and disappears. Second, the humanoid face models are awful. Everyone in this land was apparently deformed in some horrible childhood accident.

I have not really made it far enough into the game to say anything more than this. I don't really have the combat system figured out, so anything scarier than a mud crab still seems to kick my ass more often than not.

The open sandbox nature of the game works against it here. It's not really clear to me where I should go to obtain the things I need to obtain to not be killed by crabs on the beach. This is made more complicated by the fact that the leveling system is needlessly complicated. In order to give you the impression that you are doing something "deep", they cut up R into a dozen or so components that all increase at varying rates. This makes you really think about how you want to play the game before you've seen enough of the game to figure out how you want to play the game. It seems like it would be easier to level everything at once for a while and then let me pick later, or not at all.

Last night, in search of more power, and figuring that it should be the hub of everything, I went to the Imperial City. I walked around the walls for about an hour. It was majestic and pretty. I talked to the zombie people there who said the same things over and over again. No one gave me any idea what I should be doing or where I could go. It turns out what I really wanted to do was to go to some small town out in the middle of nowhere where the guild halls are and I can pick up some more power items.

I guess I'll go try that tonight.

Anyway, I went back and crawled around in a cave for a while, only to be repeatedly killed by a female magic user who had more spells than me. What I really wanted at this point was a nice sniper rifle. The game has a lot of darkness to hide in, but it's hard to actually sneak up close to people and hit them. A nice rifle would fix this problem.

From Pete's descriptions of Morrowind, it really does sound to me like Oblivion is more of the same, but better tuned and with higher resolution textures. The tuning and overall craftsmanship make a big difference. They certainly got me to play for more than an hour this time. We'll see if the game can keep me on the hook.

Really though, a sniper rifle would be nice.

Posted by psu at 07:25 AM | Comments (6)

April 13, 2006

The Elderer Scrolls

by peterb

Lately, I've been playing a lot of Elder Scrolls.

Not Oblivion, mind you: I'm far, far too cheap to have purchased an Xbox 360 yet. Instead, I've been playing the previous game in the series, Morrowind. My initial thought was that this would be an effective way of curbing my urge to buy an Oblivion-capable PC, or an Xbox 360. You know. Kind of like how smoking lots of opium makes you not want heroin so much.

Well, OK. That part of the plan isn't working so very well. But it has been entertaining and instructive, nonetheless. It's given me some perspective on what in Morrowind — as a game — worked, and what did not.

I have played Morrowind on both the PC and Xbox quite a lot. Previous to this recent spate of playing, I had never managed to get very far in the game. I had logged many, many hours, mind you, but always found some excuse to throw away what I had done and start over from the beginning. I must have played the beginning parts of the game 20 or 25 times.

I initially started playing on the Xbox, and then switched to my PC because I wanted to use B. E. Griffith's beautiful facial textures, and because I liked the idea of the "quest log." Then, when I suffered a catastrophic hard drive failure on the PC, I switched back to the "Game of the Year" edition on Xbox. Having spent the last two weeks immersed in it, I've reached the conclusion that the Xbox version is superior, and I assert without proof that this superiority extends to Oblivion also. The console game may be inferior in every way from a technical perspective, and you won't be able to install any of the free mods available on the internet. But all of that pales in the face of this one, simple truth: playing on my couch is better than playing at my desk.

At my desk, I have enough stamina to play for an hour. Maybe two, if I'm engrossed. On the couch, I start playing at 10, and then I glance up at the clock, and it's 2 in the morning.

I am now further into Morrowind than I've ever been before. The reason it took me so long is, I think, because of a mismatch between the game's design and the way I want to play. I don't want to wait around for three years before I can tour the island. I want to go to potentialy dangerous places right away. But if you play the game the way it's "meant" to be played, this is nearly hopeless. This time, rather than simply "role playing" and getting sand kicked in my face like a 98 pound weakling at the beach, I have Developed A Plan. My plan involves abusing the game's levelling mechanism such that instead of my character getting just a little bit better at each task each level, he gets insanely better. Through techniques just on the ragged edge of cheating, I have become like unto a God. This means that R has increased just enough that I can wander around randomly and not get killed by the first wild animal I meet.

I will go so far as to say that this isn't just a mismatch between me and the game, but something of a fundamental flaw. The thrill of the Elder Scrolls games is that they provide a very large "sandbox" to play in. But at least in Morrowind, when you start out it is a very large sandbox staffed with bullies who can kill you by breathing on you. R increases so slowly that most of the sandbox is deadly to you. In the Japanese-style RPG, this problem would be solved by simply not letting you wander in to the dangerous areas. Here, you're free to wander up to Ghostgate and get killed any time. Exhilarating, yes, but also very frustrating.

My Morrowind solution, as I said, is to powerlevel. And now I can wander around, face moderate challenges, and not feel like I should be riding the Tamriel Short Bus. The Oblivion solution, apparently, has been to scale all enemies in the game to not be too difficult or too easy. This has caused some uproar among the "hardcore RPG fan." "Hardcore," in this context, is defined as "that segment of the market which, if every one of them bought your game twice, you'd still go bankrupt." While I understand their feelings, it seems to me to be a reasonable compromise to make their painstakingly constructed world accessible to all.

It's a truism among a certain sort of RPG player that the platonic ideal of a game is so large that most of it will never be experienced. As a software developer, I can't share this sentiment. Every bit of text you write that isn't read, every line of dialogue you record that isn't heard, every tree you place that isn't seen translates directly into man-hours and money wasted. What you actually want is a game that feels so large that it feels like most of it will never be experienced. Every player in fact plays through 99% of the game, but still believes there is an unexplored world just over the next hill.

Morrowind sustained the illusion of a huge, mostly unexplored world by creating a world that was huge and, for a large number of players, not really explorable without cheating. I suspect the level scaling of enemies in Oblivion was largely a response to this. It's not that they were trying to make the game easier simply for the players. It's that few designers like creating a large, detailed world that hardly anyone ever gets to see.

After all the hours I've put into it, I still enjoy Morrowind not for the game elements, but as a sort of extended travelogue. Even though I've been playing it for so long, I'm still finding entire towns I have never seen before, with completely different architectures. I visited a daedric shrine, and survived. I finally saw the Ghostgate. And yet I know I've only scratched the surface of the virtual landscape.

Morrowind's greatest weakness, of course, is still apparent: the utterly flat characterization of just about every NPC in the game. It is something of an achievement that the characters in the game manage to be less interesting than the books. I don't expect Oblivion to be substantially different in this regard.

But I still want to play it.

In summary: if I manage to not buy an Xbox 360 after dinner tonight, I will deserve a medal. Thank you, and goodnight.

Posted by peterb at 06:56 PM | Comments (9)

April 11, 2006

Olives For the Perplexed

by peterb

A lot of Americans don't like olives. This is because the olives most of us are subjected to suck.

I probably didn't have a truly great olive until I was in my twenties. Now, they are almost a staple food in my diet. I'd like to share some of my opinions on the subject with you, and describe some types of olives that you might want to try, if you haven't yet. I'll also tell you what to avoid.

Why You Hate Olives: It's California's Fault

You hate olives because the olives you've been eating come from California. The industry moniker for these is, generally, "colossal black olives." These are the olives that come on pizza, in low-rent chef salads, and in cans on your supermarket shelf. There is probably some more specific term for them, but all you need to know is: these are the type of olives that suck. They have no redeeming features. Eating them is similar to eating a lump of black wax flavored with road tar, with the difference that the lump of wax tastes better. It's one thing to use these in a dish (or on a pizza), but if you like these black olives to eat out of hand, you are a bad person, and should feel ashamed.

I see people struggling with this. They'll be staring at the nearly-empty tray of crudites, eyeing the olives with a slight frown. "I should like them," they're thinking. "They're good for me. Maybe I'll have one. This time I'll like them." Then they eat one and their frown deepens.

I am here to spread the gospel: stop eating these things. They are bad for you. They have a bad taste. They have a bad texture. They will give you prostate cancer (even if you're female). Eating colossal black olives makes the baby Jesus cry. The next time you are faced with them just smile and say "no, thanks."

So what should you be eating, instead? There are over 800 cultivars of olive. Here are a few that I like.

Calamata olives

Medium, almond-shaped dark brown olives with a pleasant but not overwhelming meatlike, umami tang and a just slightly bitter finish. Although they taste yummy, the real win of the Calamata is in its texture. Their flesh is firm, not mushy, but isn't so firm that it's either crispy or waxy. If I wasn't sure if someone liked olives or not, this is the one I would try them on.

Sicilian green olives

Bigger than the calamatas, these taste better (saltier, bolder, less bitter at the end). The texture is firmer; you'll almost crunch through these when eating them. These are often served spiced or marinated with hot pepper flakes. If you get the spiced variant the quality will differ dramatically based on how well they are spiced. If I could only have one type of olive, this would be it.

Oil-cured olives

Small, black, wrinkled and leathery. The skin will get between your teeth, but the taste, once you've acquired it, is sublime. They're not simply salty, but smoky and concentrated, the way that a dried cherry has a stronger, more estery taste than a fresh one.

Maddalena olives

I get in the mood for these occasionally, although they're not in regular rotation. I suspect they're a sort of overgrown Gaeta. They have a disturbing vivid purple color in both skin and flesh, and are a little too vinegary. The texture ranges from loose to very loose; they'll practically drop off the stone. They're a nice change every so often.

A Word About Pitted Olives

Pre-pitted olives are a great convenience for those of us who cook with olives. Pitting olives by hand is a huge inconvenience. If you're cooking, you should absolutely use store-pitted olives without a second look back. For eating out of hand, it's more of a mixed bag. The inside of the olive will have a tendency to toughen up and dry out a bit when the stone is removed. If you're eating out of hand, stick to olives with pits in them.

Listen: I know. I am one of the prissiest eaters I know. I can't eat grapes with seeds in them. It's almost on the level of neurosis or phobia. I am traumatized when I find a pip in a navel orange. I have basically given up on watermelon as a cruel trick society is playing on me. I just hate having to eat around seeds or stones. I hates it, I hates it, I hates it forever.

But I can eat olives with stones. Because olives are special. If I can do it, so can you.

Posted by peterb at 08:27 PM | Comments (13)

April 10, 2006

Some New Music

by psu

We heard some good new music at the PSO this weekend. I can see all of you out there rolling your eyes. "New" Classical Music is assumed to be some soulless abstract exercise in collecting clever compositional tricks and throwing them out at the bewildered audience, while very little of actual interest happens.

Well, this piece is different.

Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra is a five movement work that moves from sections for the whole band through solos in all of the major areas of the modern orchestra. The piece is designed to show off the talents of the players, and it does this well. There are features for all the principal players, even the second violins. The piece is more about rhythm and harmony than melody, so the main development is in complex cross rhythms and also in hearing sounds come from unexpected instruments. There is bowed percussion and percussive use of the strings, for example.

The movement featuring the percussion section was the most interesting. Percussion players don't normally get a lot of attention, much less an entire movement of devotion.

I don't have a lot more to say about this piece than it was consistently interesting to listen to for its entire half hour length. The music easily connects with the listener and keeps you hooked until the end.

The composer did a little video talk before the show started that they projected up on some screens over the stage. Normally I roll my eyes at this sort of thing, but this time the talk was to the point and not stupid. So I let it go. They didn't really need to partake in this exercise, the music that came after spoke for itself just fine.

Go buy the CD at Amazon.

Posted by psu at 10:37 PM | Comments (1)

April 07, 2006

Ice Cream for Dinner

by psu

It finally appears that Spring has sprung. After some false warmth, followed by a pretty cool week, we came to a Friday afternoon with temperatures in the balmy 70s and pale blue skies.

By tradition, my wife and I wait for this first day of real warmth, and walk from our offices at at CMU into Oakland for dinner. Our destination is Dave and Andy's, because adults are allowed to have ice cream for dinner.

Dave and Andy's, if you don't know, is an ice cream shop in Oakland. They have another store somewhere, but I can't remember where. Their Oakland store opened around the time I started as a student at CMU, and it has been the best ice cream in Pittsburgh ever since. Don't talk to me about Rita's or Brusters or whatever. If you are going to go to the trouble to injest huge amounts of sugar, cream and milkfat, go to Dave and Andy's to at least make it worth it. Those other places are all second rate at best.

In any case, it's the perfect place to go on your first after-work walk in the warm weather. I know it was warm last week too, but the weather was better today. Cut me some slack.

Posted by psu at 08:38 PM | Comments (0)

April 06, 2006

Give Me a D! Give Me an S!

by claire

Ok, I admit it, I'm woefully susceptible to hype. Rant and rave about how great a game is and I'll be intrigued; get others to do the same and I'm convinced. So you can guess the effect a 10+ page thread extolling the virtues of Ouendan must have had on me. I was convinced I'd love the game even before I had it. But even if you weren't so predisposed to fall in love, Osu! Tatakae! Ouendaaaaaaaaan! really is amazingly charming. I can't help it if I seem to be a cheerleader for the game. It's a game about cheerleading.

At its most basic level, Ouendan is a rhythm game on the Nintendo DS. The gameplay is deceptively simple: numbered targets appear on screen and you have to tap them in order. The rhythm comes from the circles drawn around the targets. They start off very large and gradually converge onto the target. When the circle is the same size as the target, TAP! To add a little variety there are also sliders and what I like to call the spinning wheel of death. And that's it. You can do the tutorial in 5 minutes.

The charm is in the presentation. A note: if you can't stand any of the following you will not like this game: manga, Japan, J-Pop. Yup, as you probably guessed from the title, it's a very Japan-centric game. Ouendan can be translated as 'cheer squad' and that's what you're doing. You're not just tapping a screen in time with some music you are encouraging good study habits! Reuniting lovers! Saving the city from rampaging mutants? From rampaging robots (from outer space)? Saving the world !? All with the power of cheer!

Ahem. Sorry. I got a little carried away there. The point is, each song is a little scenario in which the cheer squad is called upon to help out some poor soul. The better you do in tapping in time, the more positive effect your cheers have. The top screen stays in story mode with little manga panels and animations to show the effect your cheers are having. The bottom screen is all about gameplay.

The only problem with the game is that the tracklist contains only 15 songs, which feels a little short. Though with 4 levels of difficulty and an obsessive-compulsive need to get the perfect 'S' rank on all songs, this may not matter much. And with only 15 songs to find it's a fairly simple task to create your own 'Ouendan Soundtrack' playlist so you can train while at work, at home, on the go... Er, not that you would ever get this carried away.

I just reread what I've written and realized that I have in no way captured just what precisely it is I love about Ouendan. There's just something about the combination of happy happy J-Pop, cute little manga scenarios (that only get more ridiculous as the game goes on), and the tapping that makes my face hurt from smiling while I play it.

Ouendan! It makes the Nintendo DS happy!

Oh, I hear it may be coming State-side... I'll be rebuying it if it does. If you're inclined to import, Ouendan is available from Lik-Sang

Posted by claire at 09:07 PM | Comments (3)

April 05, 2006

The ONLY Question I Want Answered Today

by peterb

Is: "How well does The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion run on an iMac (Intel) running Windows XP via BootCamp?"

Mouseketeers, discover this information for me, and report in!

Posted by peterb at 05:42 PM | Comments (4)

April 04, 2006

Next-Gen to Prev-Gen

by psu

Originally, I bought the PS2 for a few specific games that were not available on my "main platform", the Xbox. At the time, I figured that me and my Xbox-live crew would naturally make the progression from Halo 2 on the Xbox to whatever was like Halo 2 on the Xbox 360. Between that, and the periodic Madden roster update sequel, I'd be all set.

Things never go according to plan. For various reasons, after a long run of a little more than a year, the Xbox live crew dissolved. It just became too hard to get everyone together at the right times and get them all playing the same game. As a result, my interest in online gameplay pretty much dissolved. Without a regular crew, you are stuck playing deathmatch against randoms. And random people on the Internet are almost always assholes. I don't know why, that's just how it is.

Microsoft didn't do themselves any favors by launching the 360 the way they did. You still can't walk into Target and buy a 360 Premium system (today my Target had two Core, aka "retarded" systems), and the games have been coming out in a slow trickle. To make things worse, the Xbox has been declared dead, so there is nothing to do on that machine either.

What Microsoft has done is make the original Xbox collect dust, and made it impossible for me to think of a reason to buy a 360, even if I could find one, which I can't. Great job.

Instead, I've been playing the PS2, and to my surprise, I like it more and more.

As a pure hardware platform, the PS2 really only has two things going for it.

1. It's small and cute and quiet.

2. The dual shock controller is the perfect controller, except where you want the long travel analog triggers that the Xbox has.

Everything else about the machine is pretty pathetic. It lacks raw processing power, lacks decent mass storage, and even the best rendering that I've seen on the machine combines a fuzzy sort of soft focus with a staggering amount of jagged shimmering aliasing in high resolution textures. It's truly horrible to look at.

The funny thing is, as I used the machine more, these problems receded into the background. I even found that I like the stupid memory cards more than I thought I would. Being able to back up save files is nice, even if juggling multiple cards is stupid.

I also noticed that even when playing older games, I started to subconsciously block out the horrible quality of the rendering, and instead I would see the game as it would be in my mind's eye. Almost like the way Neo decodes the gibberish characters of The Matrix at the end of the movie.

In any case, the games demand more attention than the hardware's technical limitations. The PS2 library covers arguably the widest variety of game types, and it thus allowed me to break out of my Madden and shooter world. From platformers to JRPGs to freaky horror shows to music games, I've played many more types of games than I had before. In particular, I never played action and platformer games on the Xbox because I found the controller to be tiring. Even the relatively light action in Jade Empire was painful. I find that these games are much easier to play with the PS2 controller. The size of the pad and the position of the buttons is just less fatiguing for me. Who knows why.

This expansion of interests inevitably triggered the final stage of every dork hobby addiction: collecting. The huge back catalog of PS2 games makes this almost irresistible. For example, various reissues let you follow the progression of the Japanese RPG from its inception all the way to the clothing-based battle systems of Shadow Hearts and Final Fantasy X-2. I got Silent Hill 2 for the PS2, and Pete showed me the original Silent Hill for the PS1 just in time for the movie. Every trip to the Target now brings with it the temptation to pick up some cheap title just to see it. I even picked up another Metal Gear game even though those never have any chance of being any good.

It does not need to end here. I have that old TV that isn't going anywhere, the perfect thing to hook up to an old PSOne, or Dreamcast, or SNES. Having never played any of the old games, I can probably iterate this process nearly endlessly while the waiting for the next wave of consoles to actually become worth owning.

Of course, things never go according to plan. I could always fall into Oblivion. Maybe the Target will have Premium systems tomorrow.

Posted by psu at 06:42 PM | Comments (11)

April 03, 2006

You Can Never Be Too Rich, Or Have Too Many Pants

by peterb

It started, as it always does, with a random connection, a set of neurons in my brain that misfired in an amusing way.

Someone was talking about how someone they knew was wearing hideous pants. The word "hideous" made me think of a book by the execrable C.S. Lewis (yes, the Narnia one) called That Hideous Strength. This book is about the Asskicking Jesus. Earth is under threat from space aliens, so the Asskicking Jesus flies to Mars to beat them up until they stop.

No, really. That's what the book is about. I swear. God, I really hate C.S. Lewis.

Anyway, one thing led to another, and before I knew it, I had blurted out, as if it were the title of a book, "THOSE HIDEOUS PANTS". And we were off to the races. We changed the rules about halfway through, but it doesn't really matter. Even though we've done this before, it's still pure comedy gold.

Enjoy, and as always, feel free to add your own.

    65. C.S. Lewis, THOSE HIDEOUS PANTS [peterb]

    64. A STRANGER IN STRANGE PANTS [fpereira]

    63. THE MAN FROM P.A.N.T.S. [peterb]

    62. CONSIDER CHINOS [fpereira]

    61. THE USE OF PANTS [fpereira]



    58. BRAVE NEW PANTS [fpereira]

    57. THE SHAPE OF PANTS TO COME [fpereira]



    54. THE PANTS OF NAVARRONE [shafeeq]

    53. FORBIDDEN TROUSER [peterb]


    51. SUEDE RUNNER [mahim]

    50. PANTS ATTACK ! [shafeeq]

    49. METROPOPANTS [sdavis]

    48. PANTS-in-the-Mist [baird]

    47. PANTS ON A PLANE [sdavis]


    45. PANTSLAND [tomault]

    44. THE PANTS OF CTHULHU [tomault]

    43. THE PANTS MACHINE [goob]

    42. MURDER IN THE RUE PANTS [sdavis]

    41. SLACKERS [baird]



    38. LIKE WATER FOR GAUCHOS [peterb]

    37. THE MAN IN THE IRON DOCKERS [agroce]

    36. PANTS AND PREJUDICE [sdavis]

    35. A CLOCKWORK KHAKI [peterb]


    33. PANTZER BLITZ. [baird]


    31. CAT IN NO PANTS [sdavis]

    30. THE MAN WITH NO PANTS [shafeeq]

    29. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a pair of jeans hugging a human ass -- forever. [peterb]

    28. SHORTSCUTS [goob]

    27. PANTSLESS IN SEATTLE. [baird]

    26. "Call me Levi." [peterb]

    25. "My god, it's full of pants!" [sdavis]

    24. "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into a giant zipper." [peterb]

    23. "They were the best of pants. They were the worst of pants." [tomault]

    22. "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover denim." [peterb]

    21. "You can wear pants if you want to, you can leave your pants behind. But if you wear pants, and your friends wear pants, then you're no pants of mine" [sdavis]

    20. "Of all the pants in the world, she had to walk into mine" [shafeeq]

    19. Little Lord Corduroy. [baird]

    18. "In the beginning was the Slack." [peterb]

    17. "Midway upon the road of our life I found myself within some dark pants," [goob]

    16. Young CalvinKlein [baird]

    15. Doogie Trouser, M.D. [rlink]

    14. Weathering Tights [baird]

    13. Crocodile Dungarees [rlink]

    12. The Clother [baird]

    11. "Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor pants." [peterb]

    10. Merry Pantless, Mr. Lawrence [baird]

    9. "I say God damn, God damn the Pedal-Pusher man." [rlink]

    8. Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was pantsed. [tmwong]

    7. I pantsed a man in Reno, just to watch him dress. [agroce]

    6. Little Pants, Big Pants [baird]

    5. Big Trousers in Little Chinos-town [rlink]

    4. THE FLY [psu]

    3. THE FLY: REOPENED [psu]

    2. The Good, the Plaid and the Ugly. [baird]


Posted by peterb at 09:19 PM | Comments (18)

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