October 31, 2006

Trader Joe's In One Paragraph

by peterb

Buy the yogurt, the chocolate, the mustard (sometimes), and the olive oil. Pete says that the frozen dinners are good. The cheese is hit and miss; it's a much more restricted selection than you'll find in either Whole Foods or the Strip, but on the other hand it's very affordable. The deli case is a travesty, particular the box meat presumably distributed from the same place that supplies Wal-Mart. But the prices on Nova lox can't be beat. I'm still bitter that I can't buy wine there. But that's not their fault.

In summary, anything that makes Giant Eagle paranoid is, on balance, a good thing.

Posted by peterb at 08:40 PM | Comments (4)

October 30, 2006

Splintered Cell

by psu

No more Ubisoft games.

Earlier this year, I was treated to the tedious train wreck that was GRAW. Now we have the new Splinter Cell on the 360. The game does have the signature Splinter Cell stealth mechanics. Sneak sneak, grab, kill. Unfortunately, this core engine is wrapped up in shell made of crap.

For me, Pandora Tomorrow was the quintessentially perfect third person sneak game. The camera was right, the missions and levels were well laid out. You didn't spend a lot of time lost. The only problem with that game was the moronic checkpoint system.

Chaos Theory fixed the savepoint problem, but tweaked the game engine in a couple of ways that were annoying. The camera was pushed in closer to Sam, and when you tried to push it out of the way, it would bounce back to where you didn't want it. This was moderately annoying.

What was really annoying was how Ubisoft tried to open up the maps to give you multiple paths from point A to point B. This made the maps difficult to navigate. The "3-d map" interface was supposed to make this easier. Unfortunately, the 3-d map was utterly useless for, ya know, actually navigating. The result was that Chaos Theory played out as 15 minutes of tight sneaking followed by 45 minutes of running Sam around the map trying to find one of the magic corridors that get you to the next section of the map. It was like a stealth game combined with having lost your parents at the mall.

The latest game, Double Agent takes these two problems and amplifies them enough to make the rest of the game not worth playing. The useless 3-d map is back. The camera is even tighter and bouncier. And, they have replaced the 2 or 3 hidden paths from area to area with a single invisible door, making it even easier to lose your parents.

I've played through three of the missions. In the first one, I lost my parents in a prison, and could not figure out which floor to take the elevator to to escape. Once on the roof, I had to search for 10 minutes to find a single steel beam to get over to that other part of the map where the exit is.

I didn't get lost in the second one, although I had to run through the same room over and over again. I also had to play a target practice "mini-game" for "training". The only good target practice mini-game is one that is optional.

In the third mission, it took me 30 minutes to find my parents on a supertanker, when it turned out that they had gone down a 2ft by 2ft manhole. It was tricky to find this manhole on a tanker whose deck is about two square miles in area, especially since the level takes place in a blinding snowstorm.

After finding the the hidden hole, I had to spend another half an hour in the engine room finding the single door that lead me to where I was supposed to go.

As I ran around the deck and the engine room, the camera trailed behind me, hiding my feet from view. The result of this is that the world's greatest underground superspy can't go up a flight of stairs without missing once or twice and needing to backtrack. Every time I spun back around to get back on the stairs, the camera would spin and bounce and make me more and more motion sick. Finally, down one hallway that the 3-d map didn't show me, I found the door over to the final area. Then I got to trial and error the end of the level six times to figure out how to shoot the final boss without him seeing me. Then I had to get out of the ship, but I had completely forgotten my path down, since I had mostly been running in ever sickening circles to arrive where I was.

So I turned off the Xbox and watched the ninth inning of the series. The Cardinals win! Back to baseball for me.

No more Ubisoft games.


I have now come to find out via various sources that the version of this game for the decrepit "last gen" original Xbox has 12 co-op missions in it. That was by far the coolest thing about Chaos Theory and yet it's not in the 360 game. The best thing about next gen is how the gameplay has so far outstripped what is available on the previous machines, except that, ya know, that's completely not true.

Posted by psu at 08:02 AM | Comments (0)

October 26, 2006

Trader Joe's

by psu

All the foodie people in Pittsburgh probably know, but Trader Joe's is opening tomorrow in East Liberty. Some people I know were saying "meh" about Trader Joe's, what with Whole Foods just down the street. I, for one, am excited because finally there will be a place in town to get fancier foods without all that attitude.

We got the flyer today at home, even way out here in the 'burbs. I figure the place will be mobbed much like the Whole Foods was when it opened. Pittsburgh has no lack of pent up demand for this sort of thing.

I look forward to the rice crackers laced with crack, the frozen chocolate cake, and the mustard. Most of all though, I look forward to shopping for food that is a bit cheaper and has not wrapped itself in a political and moral agenda. This is not to say that I am annoyed that Whole Foods exists in Pittsburgh. I love the place and happily put up with its foibles in order to obtain the excellent products that they bring to us from all over.

But, the place does get tiring. Trader Joe's will be a nice break. I'll be happy to be able to walk through a store and not have to ponder the lack of any real hot dogs, the piles of bacon made out of poultry, that whole meat case filled with 50 flavors of sausage, all tasteless, and the huge freezer cases full of "Tofurkey" and other crimes against humanity. The frozen chocolate lava cake will just be icing on, well, the cake.

Now, if only we could get the liquor laws out of the Eighteenth Century, we would not be deprived of the Two Buck Chuck.

The place opens at 9am tomorrow. You better get there early if you want to get in.

Posted by psu at 06:28 PM | Comments (6)

October 25, 2006

Dominions 3

by peterb
“You will not find it difficult to prove that battles, campaigns, and even wars have been won or lost primarily because of logistics.” -- Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower

I have been jonesing for a replacement for Warlords 2 for a long, long time. Ilwinter Design's game Dominions 3: The Awakening comes tantalizingly close to being that replacement. Today, I want to take a look at the game — available for Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux — and talk about its high and low points.

I had tried the demo for its predecessor last year, and been impressed. There were a lot of rough edges, it's true, particularly around the user interface, but it was an ambitious game with strategic depth.

On the surface, one could be forgiven for thinking of Dominions 3 as being yet another Risk-like game. It has a map, and the map is segmented into territories, and territories generate resources which can be used to buy armies or units. That's where the similarities end. Dominions bears as much resemblence to Risk as Capture The Flag With Stuff bears to Tag.

The conceit of the game is that your nation is led by a Pretender God whose goal is to ascend to the seat of heaven. In order to do this, you must spread your influence, or Dominion, over all the territories in the world. When you have more influence in a given territory than any other Pretender God, it is said to be under your dominion.

Dominion spreads outward in a radius, in varying strengths, from several sources. Your Pretender God radiates Dominion, as do his or her (or its) priests and temples. Since opposing units and temples interfere with your Dominion, you must conquer their territories, rout their armies, pillage their women, sexually assault their cattle, and generally act in a way completely consistent with the history of many monotheistic religions, which is to say "with overwhelming brutality."

Armies are purchased with both money and "resources." Money builds up in the treasury and can be saved from turn to turn; resources are use-them-or-lose-them. Both resources and money are multiplied by and collect in fortresses, at the cost of draining the surrounding regions of both.

“Gentlemen, the officer who doesn’t know his communications and supply as well as his tactics is totally useless.” -- General George S. Patton,
When opposing armies meet, the battle is resolved automatically, by the computer. You'll receive a report telling you who won and how many units were killed, and be given an option to watch a replay of the battle. Choosing to do this takes you to an animation of your two armies clashing, demonstrating exactly who killed who and with what weapon or spell. Large battles are quite impressive to watch. The immediate goal of a battle is not to kill every unit, but to force all of the opposing armies to rout. One does this by either inflicting heavy enough losses, or by killing their commanders.

Spellcasting is a major part of the game, and can influence battles greatly, especially since many of the spells in the game improve the skills of your soldiers, or degrade those of the enemy's. In order to cast a spell, you must first research it. Since most of the units that are powerful spellcasters are also the best researchers, and since you can only research spells in certain locations, this creates a challenging tension where some of your best units will be far away from the front lines, hunched over books, studying instead of fighting. Now that's my kind of job.

Your control over units in battle is oblique and subtle. Once a battle begins, you have no input whatsoever. Armies can only move from one location to another when grouped with a commander. You can (and must) group units into cohorts that act as a single unit. You position these groups relative to one another, and then give each cohort (or commander) a set of standing orders that they will try to follow to the best of their abilities: "fire arrows at the closest enemies", "fire arrows at the rearmost enemies," "stay in the back and cast spells," "advance up the side of the battlefield and try to flank the enemy." If you give no orders, the cohort will simply try to figure out what it should be doing.

“The line between disorder and order lies in logistics…” -- Sun Tzu
This conundrum, in one form or another, forms the core of the strategic challenge of Dominions. Your armies are recruited in a multitude of territories, and by and large the challenge isn't "recruit enough troops to win battles" but "get those troops to the right place so they can win battles." In my first few games, I found myself sweeping up large swaths of territory. Then, without any effective recruitment and deployment strategy, the game ground to a halt as the computer players and I swapped ownership of some central territory every turn. Winning the game isn't so much a matter of conquering territory, but of conquering territory that you can defend while still being able to attack the opponents' weak spots. This gives it a strategic depth that is missing in many games.

All is not wine and roses. While more polished than its predecessors, Dominions 3 is still somewhat roughly-hewn. The graphics assets are fairly primitive, though this is a forgivable sin in a turn-based strategy game. The user interface, while not actively awful, is merely "just good enough." This affects gameplay somewhat because one's territories and armies quickly multiply to the point where you simply can't keep track of them. I would desperately have loved to have some facility equivalent to the "vectoring" of armies in Warlords 2. Instead, at some point on the larger maps the number of balls in the air becomes too great to manage. My solution to that is to shut down my higher brain functions and leave some potentially useful army halfway across the world, forgotten. I'm sure there are ways of dealing with this problem, but the game doesn't make them obvious.

On the plus side is the nearly obsessive-compulsive level of detail that has gone into the game world, the spellbook, and the game balance. There are 50 playable nations, over 1500 units, 600 magic spells, and 300 magic items, all of which have detailed descriptions and a real sense of character. The music is melodic and arabesque, and is enjoyable on its own terms.

And there's one detail that maybe doesn't matter to a lot of people, but that I think is a very nice touch. The game comes with a 300 page printed manual. So a tip of the hat to Ilwinter and Shrapnel for not making me fire up a PDF reader to find out how to play their game.

The game supports both hotseat play and play by email, but I don't have any friends other than psu, and he won't play any game that requires him to hit anything other than the "x" button on his gamepad. So I'll leave the multiplayer part of the review to someone else.

Dominions 3 is a traditional strategy gamer's game. The casual gamer, or the gamer who prefers a purer and more streamlined game, will likely find it too baroque and involved to enjoy. In many ways, it is the very antithesis, philosophically, of Advance Wars, a game I've lauded for combining ruthlessly crisp strategic and logistical considerations with a drop-dead simple user interface. How, then, can I explain the fact that I like Dominions in spite of the 1500 units, and the 600 magic spells, and the detailed setup required for combat preparedness? The answer, I think, lies in vision. Most games that are too big feel like they are designed by committee. Dominions 3 on the other hands, feels like a story grabbed hold of its two Swedish developers, and just wouldn't let go. Yes, it's too big. Yes, it's a bit unwieldy. Yes, I wish they would license the battle visualization engine from the guys who made Legion Arena. But there's something authentic about the game. The designers made the game that they really, really wanted to play. And that is somehow infectious.

Dominions 3 is available for Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux for $54.95. Free demos for all three platforms are available from the publisher's website.

Diclosure statement: The publisher of Dominions 3, Shrapnel Games, graciously provided a copy of the game for review.

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

October 23, 2006

In Soviet Cupertino, Apple Portable Music Player Owns You

by faisal

Just over five years ago today, Apple Computer invited members of the press to an event in which Apple would introduce "a breakthrough digital device". The all-knowing Mac rumor mill quickly swung into action, revealing that the device would be a music device, possibly a portable MP3 player, not a portable MP3 player, a wireless standalone cd-writer, a floor wax, and a dessert topping. Six days later -- five years ago, today -- Steve Jobs finally got on stage and introduced an overpriced MP3 player, and everyone yawned. Hindsight being 20/20, I'd like to put on my product manager hat and opine on why it's something anybody cares about today.

1st generation: Oct 23, 2001
c/o: Rjcflyer@aol.com cc

Before I do that, I should clarify something: I do not work for Apple. I have never worked for Apple. I do have friends who work for Apple and they don't tell me squat about what goes on there. I didn't bother to talk to any of them about the contents of this article -- they'd just refuse to comment. This article reflects my opinion only, and not the opinion of anyone else who writes on this site, nor the opinion of any of my past, present or future employers.

For those who have just returned from 6 years in Subrockistan, the iPod is a portable MP3 player with a few notable qualities:

  1. You can update the contents of the iPod, and charge the battery, merely by plugging the iPod into your computer.
  2. It has a staggeringly simple interface -- some might say too simple.
  3. You can find them for sale just about everywhere.
  4. You can generally have someone else's when you pry it from their cold, dead hand.

The iPod is a wild success today, but its introduction met with skepticism. It was derided as silly looking, too expensive, too feature-poor, and called a number of things that we can't print here. Every revision was expected to fail, and every passing year brought claims that this was a fad like the Walkman (only 100 million Walkmans sold in the first 20 years). In the early years of the iPod, no article was complete without a quote from a competitor claiming they would best Apple with more featureful offerings. Meanwhile:

  • Apple's market share in digital music players continues to grow, recently topping 75%. Apple shipped 8.7 million iPods in the last quarter, bringing the total units sold to over 60 million.
  • The market for iPod accessories is around $1 billion.
  • iPods, with their characteristic white headphones, are an increasingly popular robbery target.
  • 70% of 2007 model year cars in the us have direct ipod connectivity built in.
  • 1.5 billion songs sold via the iTunes store.

That last item bears consideration:

  • The iTunes store launched in 2003.
  • Depending on whose numbers you believe, digital downloads accounted for somewhere between 5% and 6% of the total music sales market as of the end of last year, and has grown since. The iTunes store currently accounts for somewhere between 80% and 88% of the digital download market.
  • In slightly less than 4 years, Apple has gone from nothing to somewhere between 4% and 5% of the worldwide music distribution market, making it a bigger music retailer than Sam Goody or Tower Records, and all without shipping a single CD.

Many people consider the success of the iTunes store as key to the iPod's success, since music industry lobbied congress to make it illegal to use iTunes music on any non-iPod portable MP3 player. It may make it easier for Apple to retain iPod users in the future, but I know only one person who purchased an iPod and then went on to purchase a non-iPod player. He claims his next unit may be an iPod again. The iPod market is still in wild growth mode, and Apple isn't worrying about retaining the early adopters -- it's worrying about getting units as possible out the door as fast as possible.

So what has made the iPod successful? I can think of a number of factors. Whether these were intentional or accidental, all of these contributed to the success of the product:

  • Timing. The iPod came along at the exact point where pretty much everyone knew about mp3s, but no one had figured out the magic sauce for selling consumer electronics for them.
  • It's a consumer electronics device. Before the iPod, most portable MP3 players were made by computer accessory companies, and they thought like computer accessory companies: users want more features, and don't care about a lot of configuration hassles. Apple produced a product that fit with music fans' desire for something more like a home stereo: no more than slightly cryptic, and music, music, music. After the iPod started to take off, the competition introduced new and more confusing features, while Apple tried to make the product simpler still.
  • It was white. Yes, it was goofy looking. And yet, it did not look like part of a computer. This matters when selling to a young adult audience that considers aesthetics an important differentiating point. If you're a geek you want more features. But in the whole history of mankind nobody ever got a date due to enhanced skip protection.
  • Carefully controlling features until their time had come. Apple was late with video, but when they delivered video everyone else was still an also ran. Journliasts often asked Apple about video support in the years before release, and Apple pointed out that most people use iPods while doing something that requires their visual attention. The tech industry took this to mean that Apple was not interested in video iPods. But a small part of the market rides public transportation for an hour every day, or flies for six hours every month or two, and that sub-market is big enough to support a video product. It made sense to build video in once the buyers were already going to be carrying such a device. Apple's competitors had to convince a sizeable percentage of Metro and MTA riders that they wanted to buy a portable video player. Apple merely had to let its iPod-carrying commuters know that their next iPod would let them watch videos.
  • Being Sony first. Sony has a simple model for developing products: make something cooler than what the commodity market has, then charge 50% more for it. Apple did that before Sony could, so when Sony came along, saw what Apple had, and tried to charge 50% more than Apple for a product that was not obviously better, it was ignored. The only Sony MP3 player I've seen in a couple years has been my phone, and I can only get it to actually play music by leaving it in my pocket while walking around the grocery store.
  • Engraving. By letting people put their name in their iPod Apple instantly increased the value of the iPod to the buyer. It also decreased the value of the iPod to anyone else. Engraved iPods don't get resold as much as un-engraved ones, and new iPod buyers are more likely to buy new.
  • Good supplier management. Apple can place big orders with vendors to get big discounts. Meanwhile, it's soaking up supply, increasing its competitors' costs. Higher volumes with higher prices and lower costs can be taken to the bank.
  • Better control of prices. Whether through judicious use of incentives or ruthless use of back-room chats with Vinnie Bag-o-donuts, Apple has managed to keep a lid on price wars between iPod retailers. The iPod's final prices stayed consistent while other MP3 players got discounted. Freshman microeconomics would suggest that this would drive more sales to the competition, but that ignores the fact that most iPod buyers want an iPod, not an MP3 player. Indeed, Apple seems to find itself with product shortages before every winter holiday. These higher street prices have also given the iPod a perceived aura of relative quality.
  • It was white (yes, again). Everyone knows what an iPod looks like. Nobody knows what a Creative Zen looks like. Suddenly a bunch of people are carrying this freaky white box. What is it? It's an iPod. A different bunch of people are carrying little gray boxes. What are they? They're MP3 players. They're like iPods, only different. Parents, do not let your kid grow up to be the brand manager whose product gets described as "like" something.

Which brings us to today: the iPod is well entrenched, the iTunes store is starting to worry Target and Walmart (who sell iPods after famously failing to negotiate lower iPod prices with Steve Jobs), Apple just launched movie downloads, and it costs less to buy the two TV shows I ever watch from iTunes than it costs to get cable TV.

What's on the horizon? Steve Jobs claims this year "is likely to be one of the most exciting new product years in Apple's history". Apple has already pre-announced the iTV iTunes/TV bridge-box. The rumor mill predicts an iPhone iPod-telephone combination. MacOSRumors predicts that they will be working on an article about exciting developments in writing new articles. And Microsoft is launching the Zune -- a new portable media device dubbed by some as an "iPod killer" -- by going after the capabilities the iPod doesn't have. Some people think it's already a flop. Others think it's the only thing out there that can seize the iPod's momentum. I'd offer a guess, but there's a funny thing about predictions: if I could predict the future I'd have written this five years ago.

Posted by faisal at 07:21 PM | Comments (1)

October 18, 2006

CFP: Porting Dwarf Fortress to OS X

by peterb

I'm continuing to play Dwarf Fortress on a fairly regular basis, at least when I have time.

I've reached the underground lava river, set up a magma forge, and my latest wave of immigrants included a number of nobles — a broker, a manager, a sheriff, and a representative of the farming guild. They showed up and immediately began demanding luxuries (for starters, each wants their own personal dining room, sheesh). But they clearly make a difference: when the human caravan showed up to trade, having the broker really made things much easier. It's not all wine and roses, though. There have been a few tragedies. The most recent was when my legendary miner was attacked by a lone fire imp. He burned to death, and died weeping.

The big problem with playing Dwarf Fortress, though, is that I have to reboot into Windows to do it.

So I am putting out a call for participation, on behalf of the developer: help port Dwarf Fortress to Mac OS X and Linux.

This has to be done in a fairly indirect way, since the source code isn't open source. But it can be done. Tarn Adams, the developer, has released the source code to an earlier game, Kobold Quest, under the BSD license. Click here to download the source code. Kobold Quest is a much simpler game, but uses basically the same display engine as Dwarf Fortress. His basic idea is that if someone gives him a rewritten Kobold Quest, he could use that to get Dwarf Fortress SDLified.

So the challenge here is to grab Kobold Quest and rewrite it to use SDL instead of native Windows calls. I've taken a look at the source code, and I believe this could be done in two or three days, at least for a basic command-line port.

I'm not doing it myself because, frankly, I don't have those two or three days to spare right now.

If you're up to the challenge, there are many Dwarf Fortress addicts who would be in your debt. And if you're in the Pittsburgh area, I'll buy you a six-pack at Dee's.

As for why I care about having this game on Mac OS, the best I can do is quote from this post on the forums (in response to someone asking why dwarves who want to build an artifact, but can't, go insane):

You have to look at it from their perspective, though. It's easy to say that they're snapping easily when you're just looking at things from outside the monitor and reading events in lines on the screen.

When a dwarf gets a serious wound, though, they are likely to be maimed for life. It's not so strange for extremely tough, previously self-relient types of people to completely flip out when faced with that sort of thing.

And we're not talking about 'seeing a rat'. We're talking about having the fortress that you slaved to create crawling with rats. We're talking rats and vermin crawling over you while you sleep and eating the food out of your hands.

And don't forget the other things. Portions of the fortress are covered in noxious, wretched miasmas of decay so thick that they actually obscure your view. Friends and relatives die regularly and are sometimes just left to rot on the ground. Wild raccoons and other horrible monsters are just waiting for the chance to rip out your throat. If you make a mistake or fail to meet a production order, the sheriff cuts you to pieces with an axe. Horrible creatures regularly crawl out of your drinking water and try to murder you in your beds. Filthy new immigrants are constantly being shoved into your fortress' cramped quarters, forcing you to work yourself down to the bone to get new quarters ready and leaving you with barely enough food to get through the winter. And when food runs out, you're reduced to grubbing for rats, beetles, and worms in order to survive.

And then, when inspiration finally strikes--when you finally a chance to do what you've been dreaming to do for your entire life, the one reason you really went through the hell of this horrible fortress, the one true Dwarven dream--when you finally feel inspiration strike you and can see the form of your artifact in your head, you end up wasting three months doing nothing as your incompetent leaders fail to provide you with the necessary materials. Eventually, the vision begins to fade and you realize you can no longer remember what the artifact you'd waited your entire life for even looks like. Wouldn't you go mad, too?

Don't ask why your dwarves go insane or throw tantrums. Ask how they manage to stay sane the rest of the time.

Yeah, move over, Bill Harris. I'm around the bend about it too.

Posted by peterb at 05:54 PM | Comments (9)

October 17, 2006

Baseball ... Button ... Mashing

by psu

A while back, I picked up MLB 06: The Show for the PS2 in part because the guys over at the Sports Gamer Blog and Bill Harris loved it and in part because I was bored and curious. Baseball, it seemed to me, was a hard game to convert over to the video format because of the need to potentially control so many players.

On the PS2, the game never really connected with me. I couldn't figure out the hitting. The pitching interface seemed random. It was also tedious to get into and out of games, what with needing to dance back through all the startup screens and file loading.

Still, the Career Mode was intriguing. You can make a pitcher, play some games, go into the "Training" screen to bump up some stats and then go again. This seemed like an obvious way to take up time on the PSP.

Eventually I gave in and got the portable version of the game. And I have learned something nice about baseball video games.

First, start the Career Mode.

Second, set the game up with the old style pitching interface without the kick meter.

Third, set the game up with automatic fielding and base-running, so you don't have to worry about that crap.

Now here is how the game works:

To pitch, mash the X button. Wait a while. Hit it again.

To hit, mash the X button, wait a while, hit it again.

Once in a while, go to the training screen and increase your R. Repeat.

It's the perfect game for where my head has been lately, which is in a place where I don't want to think about plot, puzzles, complicated jumping, or anything requiring coordination of lower and higher brain function.

The Show also has some of the best audio in the sports game that I have experienced. The announcers do repeat themselves, but not as much as in other games, and they never sound stupid. The other night, Karen even thought I was listening to a real game. The player A.I. gets the job done. The only real complaint is the load times on the PSP. But that's not too bad, since it can take a session or two to get from load to load.

The game has managed to replace Madden in the PSP, and is the perfect companion to whatever else I might have in the DS, which, right now, is Super Mario in semi-permanent suspension as I try to figure out how to clear the next world.

Recommended for anyone interested in baseball, or anyone looking for a nice slow paced X-button mashing game.

Posted by psu at 06:23 PM | Comments (1)

October 13, 2006

Industrial Disease

by psu

The other night, we visited one of our favorite local places, the Grand Canal Cafe. For years, they've done straightfoward Italian food with a particular emphasis on pastas. Karen had a craving for their speciality: a ground veal and spinach cannelloni with a tomato and béchamel sauce.

So we walk in the place, ready for happiness, and they don't have the cannelloni. They have not had it for a couple of weeks because of the spinach scare.

In an unrelated incident a couple of weeks ago, we went to the Costco. Two images always stand out when I go to the Costco. The first is the floor to ceiling bins of electronic entertainment products (PS2, Xbox, Gamecube) that in some cases people were standing in line to buy on Ebay just a few months ago. For this particular trip, there were Guitar Hero guitars stacked up as high as the eye could see.

The second image that sticks with me are the industrial sized packages of "specialty foods."

What Costco and this spinach scare have in common is that they bring the nature of our food distribution system into stark relief. Back in the day, the "organics movement" liked to wrap itself in a lot of rhetoric about sustainable practices, small volume farming, personal service and a generally high level of quality (and therefore cost). This was convenient when there was money to be made and niche luxury markets to grow.

But now organics are Big Business. And I think what we have learned is that Big Business is Big Business. Horizon and Organic Valley are everywhere. Dannon owns Stonyfield Farm Yogurt. Bags of organic spinach are everywhere except when they are pulled off the shelf for making people sick. Five years ago, in Pittsburgh, dozens of people got sick after eating contaminated vegetables at Chi-Chi's. Today, it's organic spinach. Organic food poisoning isn't any better than the kind with pesticides

The lesson is, if there is money to be made as a niche luxury, there is even more money to be made by centralizing distribution, increasing volume, and generally pushing the product into the largest possible distribution channels. This means the huge restaurant purveyors (Sysco) and the huge retail outlets (Costco). This, more than anything, is the American Way. There is nothing that is specialized enough to avoid being turned into a supersized Costco Commodity if there is enough money to be made.

But, as we learned in Fast Food Nation, this kind of distribution is the ideal way for the bugs to get us. The fact that the organic food industry has fallen to into the same traps as the fast food industry must be a crushing blow to all of those self-important boomer granola munchers at the Whole Foods.

I think we can't have our cake and eat it too. We can't espouse the ethical high ground of local food production and local distribution and still want conviently packaged inexpensive organic spinach year 'round at the food store. The reality is that smaller scale local food is more expensive and more limited. So, if you really want to take the high ground, you have to be willing to pay more and get less. There is no way around that.

Meanwhile, all I want is my god-damned cannelloni. Hopefully it will be back by next month.

Posted by psu at 09:35 PM | Comments (12)

October 12, 2006

A Short Take on Self-Deception

by peterb

I can't even summon the energy to write about Neverwinter Nights 2. I suspect this means I won't be able to summon the energy to actually play it, either.

Mind you, I'm sure I'll purchase it. I bought every NWN expansion like a good citizen, but the game lacked snap. It was a victim of its own compromises.

We can mock John Romero for his long hair and his broken promises. But if ever there was living, breathing proof of his dictum that "Content is King", it is that Jade Empire was compelling from start to finish, and Neverwinter Nights makes me feel narcoleptic. They are built on the same basic technology. But one is fun, and the other isn't.

This is above and beyond the other issues — the fact that whenever I wanted to play online with my friends, we all had to spend an hour and a half synchronizing on the right versions, getting the server configured, and so on. The fact that browsing the thousands upon thousands of fan-created modules is more fun than playing them. The tragiocomically bad camera. Neverwinter Nights fails to be fun in a particularly frustrating way. This isn't an obvious stinker like, say, Dungeon Siege. Everything about Neverwinter radiates fun. Everything about it sounds fun. Everything about it looks like fun. For the love of all that is good and holy, it should be fun.

But it isn't fun. Why?

The politically correct attitude among gamers — by which I mean "people who have so little to do with their time that they're willing to install and play games on a computer instead of a box hooked up to their TV" — is to pretend that user created content is the apotheosis of cool. Witness the recent bloggy wanking about how modders "saved" Oblivion, a game with an original story line, stunning graphic design, and intriguing gameplay because they created mods like "made the water more transparent."

The thing is: it isn't true. Neverwinter for example, has many user-created modules that are "fun" on some abstract level. Nice plot. Good scripting. Clever puzzles. But the sense of you've-been-here-before ennui is strong throughout. It's not a fair comparison. The simple fact is that no matter how good a module Jeb and George write, the hundreds of artists, writers, musicians, set designers, modelers, and QA personnel who worked on Jade Empire make a real difference. Both Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire have a quality about them that the Top Gear guys, when talking about cars, call "bespoke." That's what's missing from the best user-created Neverwinter Nights modules. I think it's the need to create something that could be used by Jeb and George to create Generic D&D Module G6: Against The Vault Of The Drow On The Borderlands that forces Neverwinter into a very cookie-cutter sort of design sensibility. And it shows.

To be frank, I haven't paid very close attention to NWN 2, simply because I have an assumption going in that however good it is, it (and the user-created content for it) will lack this bespoke quality. Maybe someone at Bioware can set me straight. I figure they still owe me a favor for the Inscrutable Denominator of Heavenly Glory.

We'll see.

Posted by peterb at 11:10 PM | Comments (2)

October 10, 2006

Lost Talent

by peterb

"Hey," I said to Nat. "I got my Gamefly queue a little confused, and ended up with Lost Magic for the DS. You have that, right? Will I like it?"

"It's interesting," he said, "but the difficulty curve is a little high. Play it until it gets hard, and then send it back."

I played through four interesting tutorial battles, and then on the first "real" battle ("Windmill Plains", if you must know), lost 5 times in a row. Each time I lose, of course, I have to endure the unskippable cutscene yet another time.

So I guess it goes back to Gamefly tomorrow.

Posted by peterb at 11:50 AM | Comments (3)

October 09, 2006

Just use sRGB

by psu

Color is confusing. This is a fundamental truth in the photographic universe. You can't count on color to be a reliable constant. The film and the CCD capture color differently than you see it, turning scenes which look perfectly fine to your eye into seas of over-saturated orange, or veiling everything in sickly pale green. The gray shady day becomes a blue mess. One of the reasons I shot black and white film for so many years was to avoid problems with balancing color film for various lighting conditions. Digital cameras make this a bit easier when the automatic white balance works, but manipulating pictures on a computer screen brings up its own set of issues. Eventually, you have to deal with color management.

Color management is a maze of confusion for anyone who uses computers to create and manipulate pictures. You read about color profiles, color spaces, device profiles, gamut, profile conversion, color calibration, but you gain no real enlightenment.

Here is the lazy guide to all the color management you need to know about to make decent looking pictures for the web and prints.

The Big Picture

Just use sRGB.

A Bit More Detail

Unless you can write a coherent document about the requirements you have that would make you do otherwise, just use sRGB for everything, and don't worry too much about calibration.

To most serious digital photographers, the above statement amounts to the highest form of heresy. You can't make quality prints, they will say, without a workflow that is calibrated and color managed from end to end. To them I reply that the reality is that color management is complicated and expensive and not really worth it for most users. Most consumer imaging devices deal with pictures using the sRGB color space. This includes printing machines, web browsers, the screens on most personal computers that run Windows, and so on. Therefore, if you just follow my advice, you are in some sense "automatically" calibrated. It won't be perfect, but it will work well enough.

Meanwhile, the rest of you are wondering exactly what sRGB is in the first place. I'm here for you, too. The next time a gang of photo forum calibration weenies attacks you in an alley, here is what you tell them.

Representing Color: Color Spaces

In simple terms, color management systems try to compensate for the fact that different devices interpret and display color in different ways. Colors generated by mixing phosphor look different than colors generated via filtered LCDs, and LCD colors look different than colors generated by mixing ink. The goal of the color management system is to provide you with information about how the bits you have collected will look on the target device when you look at the file on your working device. In theory, if you are managed end to end, you can be working on your laptop screen and adjust the color so that there are no huge surprises when you ship the picture to your large format ink jet printer for final output.

It turns out that a large international standards body called the ICC thought about this problem for a long time, and came up with some standard mechanisms for describing the characteristics of different devices for displaying color images.

The first thing you need to do this is a reference space of colors. Back in the day, the CIE color space was defined for this purpose. Every color in this space is defined as three floating point values. Color profiles are then defined in terms of mappings into and out of this space.

This brings us to sRGB. The sRGB color space is defined as a mapping from one triple of values (R,G,B) to a point in the CIE color space (X,Y,Z). The details are not that important. The key thing is that the mapping assigns a specific color value in the CIE space to each RGB value. In other words, given an RGB value in a digital picture (a JPEG file, for example), the sRGB color space provides information about what color that RGB value represents.

The actual mapping defines the range of colors that can be represented using sRGB and things like the default gamma (2.2). The idea was to model the color response of a CRT monitor. Given this, it is easy to see why the hard core photographers sneer at this color space. They are interested in prints. They make prints for display, prints for books, prints for sales, and so on. Therefore, the professional photographer requires two critical things from his color management system:

1. A working color space that can represent "enough" colors, at least as many as the printer can reproduce.

2. A way to preview what a given file will look like on the output device in question without making a proof. Proofing might be expensive or impractical, so pre-proofing is critical.

The first requirement is why you hear people carping about Adobe RGB or whatever. That color space has a wider gamut than sRGB, so it is more useful when dealing with subjects that have a wide range of colors, and printers that can reproduce those colors. Most users do not have these requirements and so don't really need to care about Adobe RGB.

The second requirement is what the rest of the color management system is for.

Color Profiles

Color profiles are like color spaces, but rather than defining the behavior of some abstract device, they are built by measuring an actual device and building a mapping from an ideal color space to that device. In other words, you can think of a color profile, or device profile as a mapping from the CIE color space back to the RGB that you should send to the device in order to get something close to the color you wanted. I say something close, because you can never exactly match these things. We'll see why later.

There are two devices that most photographers need to deal with. The first is the screen on the computer that they use to edit their pictures. The second is the printer (or printers) that they use for output. Given a source color space and a device profile, the color management system can figure out how to display a given RGB value in an image file on the given output device. First, you use the color space to map to CIE, then you use the device profile to map back to RGB.

You build a device profile by sending the device a series of reference colors and then measuring its output in response to these reference colors. After you collect enough samples you can use some standard statistics to build the mapping that you need. When someone tells you that you need to "calibrate" your screen or printer, this is what they mean.

So, in practice, suppose you have carefully calibrated both your screen and your printer. What does this buy you? Well, suppose you want to print some picture, and you open it up in Photoshop on your screen and you think it looks too blue. You ask yourself, will it look too blue in the print? One way to find out is to just print it, then tweak it in Photoshop, then print it again. But, this is tedious and difficult because you are not even really sure how what you do in Photoshop will map to the final print.

Here is where Photoshop can rescue you. Photoshop has a special preview mode that will make your screen pretend that it is the printer, so you can see an approximation of the final print on the screen without wasting paper. The catch is that it needs those two device profiles that we talked about before in order to work. What it will do is first run the original image through the printer profile to see what RGB it would send the printer if it were printing. Then it will take that value, and display it using the profile for your screen. Here is the full pipeline:

Image RGB ----> Printer profile ----> Printer ----> Screen profile ----> Screen

The result is an approximation of the final printer output on your screen. You need both profiles so that you can correctly compensate for the particular characteristics of both devices. Also, the results are never perfect because screen phosphors and printer ink do not behave the same way when mixed. Still, even though the system is imperfect, if you really need to match colors, it's a lot easier to have this than do just do it by eye and trial and error.

Why You Should Just Use sRGB

From the above commentary, you might be thinking, "Wow, I should really calibrate my system from end to end, it will be so much easier to adjust my pictures to look great!". To an extent you are correct. However, how often to you print to an arbitrary output device?

Think about the last 10,000 pictures you have taken. Oh wait, you've only taken a few hundred? Well, whatever. How many did you have printed to your special Epson Photo Ink Jet printer with the fancy and expensive pigment-based permanent color inks? What? You just put pictures on the web and get prints at Costco?

If this is that case, here is why you should be using sRGB. First, for web pictures, it is the only way to know that what the web browser on the other end of the internet will be looking at something that looks anything like what you were editing in Photoshop. There is one simple reason for this: Web browsers do not use color management. Neither Internet Explorer or Firefox pay attention to the color space of a JPEG file when displaying it. They just default to whatever the default color space of the operating system is, which means they just default to sRGB.

Recall that a lot of people like to use Adobe RGB when working with pictures professionally. Suppose you put a lot of pictures up on the web and they are all in JPEG files that are tagged with the Adobe RGB color space. What will these pictures look like in your grandmother's web browser? They will look like shit. The color spaces define different contrast and saturation curves, the result being that the pictures typically look washed out flat. Therefore, the rule for web pictures is clear: everything you put on the Web should be in sRGB or your pictures will look like crap.

Now, you could work in Adobe RGB and do you own conversions later when you post pictures to the web. But if your main target is web pictures, what's the point? (See the wanky side note below).

For printing, the situation is similar. Almost all consumer output devices, including those huge digital printing mini-labs that they have at Costco assume that the incoming file is in the sRGB color space. If you give them anything else, the picture will look like crap. Home inkjet printers, even the fancy ones, have also been engineered to automatically make sRGB pictures look decent without much work on the part of the user. Of course, these devices will let you bypass this processing if you want to send raw bits processed with Photoshop's color engine or Colorsync or whatever, but their default mode is to just print sRGB and do a decent job of it.

Therefore, my original advice stands. Just use sRGB for the web. And, if you do decide to make prints, use sRGB at first. If you can then point out exactly how this is failing for you, you can decide to start using Adobe RGB or whatever later. I will bet you a case of beer that for 90% of what you do, sRGB will work just fine.

Wanky Side Note for the Geeks in the Audience

The truth is that most digital cameras make this choice for you anyway. You shoot, you get sRGB JPEG files. The main exceptions are the up market point and shoots and the digital SLRs. With these cameras, you have more flexibility because you can either shoot RAW and put off the final choice of color space until later. This is what I do, but it's pointless because I hardly ever work with anything but sRGB.

Alternatively, with many of these cameras you could also shoot Adobe RGB JPEG files and then convert them to sRGB for the web, and use the Adobe RGB for prints, but then you have defeated the one step convenience of shooting JPEG files, so you might as well be shooting RAW again anyway.


Don't let the color management problem get you down. This does not have to be a complex brain-imploding process. Just like everything in photography, you can get away with being lazy as long as you understand a bit about how things work. sRGB works well for most of the pictures you will take. I have the 12x18 prints from Costco to prove it if you don't believe me.

Posted by psu at 08:04 PM | Comments (4)

October 05, 2006

The Right Honorable Professor Fizzwizzle

by peterb

I'm strongly in favor of so-called "casual games," but I am violently opposed to the moniker.

I understand the need for something that quickly and concisely expresses to a publisher what you think the market for your game is. So I understand why "casual" is the word of choice. The simple fact is that "Games that are designed for people that aren't total and complete dorks" is just too long to fit on a business card. But "casual" implies that the game isn't serious, or isn't seriously fun. Which, as the game I'll be reviewing tonight demonstrates, often isn't true.

So here, we prefer the name "wage slave games."

There are two essential attributes that I assert make a game a "wage slave game": appearance and accessibility.

''Appearance'' is the less important of the two. Since only women play games that are fun, casual games must have a bright yet girlish color scheme, big friendly buttons, a cartoonish yet world-weary art style, and a jazzy yet unthreateningly non-ethnic soundtrack. If the game has a theme dealing with an ancient culture (for example, if you are helping to build statues of the Pharoah by playing Solitaire), then the sound of drums is permitted.

More seriously, and with less snark this time, casual games are about accessibility. First and foremost, the games must be downloadable. They should run and perform well on a wide array of systems, to maximize the potential customer base. Ideally, they should be implementable in Flash, so that you can offer customers a non-time-limited free demo while minimizing the risk of piracy. Because they're going to run in Flash, the controls must be simple. No function keys. No right-clicking, if you can help it. Four arrow keys and the spacebar, or just mouse controls. The games must start quickly and stop quickly — the market you're selling to works for a living, and may have to go change a diaper. There should be no penalty for quitting in the middle. The idea of a "save game" shouldn't even exist. When you quit, the program should remember where you were, and when you come back, it should pick up where you left off.

In other words, casual games are exactly like the "hardcore" game experience, except that they are better in every possible way.

Both the casual and non-casual game markets are filled with games that are boring and utterly derivative. So it's always nice to find a game that brings something new to the table. Today's game in that category is Professor Fizzwizzle.

The plot of Professor Fizzwizzle somehow involves RageBots that look like they came straight out of Bob the Angry Flower, so I'm already inclined to like it. But the real meat on the bones here is the game itself. You can view it as a combination of Mario vs. Donkey Kong and Sokoban, if you like, but really it's its own thing.

The object of the game is to win. You win by travelling through a certain number of levels. You win each level by reaching a certain location. The mechanics of the game center around how you reach that location.

Between you and the goal will be various hindrances, such as closed gates, air gaps, or angry RageBots, and varying terrains, such as grass, sand, and ice. There are also objects placed carefully around each level. Fizzwizzle can push (and walk on) crates, barrels, and magnets, and in some cases he can place new objects. Everything in the world obeys consistent physical laws, and there is generally only one way to win each level.

In other words, it's a puzzle game. The levels range from trivial (there's even a section of the game just for children) to diabolical. At any time, you can ask the game to show you the solution to a level. Far from ruining the game, this serves as a safety valve. Just knowing that I have the option to see how it's done makes me much less likely to give up.

The appearance of the game isn't my cup of tea. In terms of graphic design, I'm much more of a Strange Adventures in Infinite Space sort of guy. But behind the obligatorily jaunty graphics and music is a game with thoughtfully designed puzzles and a pleasantly simple user interface that will give you hours of entertainment.

There's also a level editor shipped with the game, which is brilliant in its simplicity. So once you've conquered the game, you can make your friends hate you by designing puzzles of your own.

Professor Fizzwizzle runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux, and is a paltry $19.95. A free demo is downloadable from the Grubby Games website.

Disclosure statement: the publisher graciously provided a copy of the game for review.

Posted by peterb at 07:18 PM | Comments (1)

October 04, 2006

Shopping Angst Averted

by peterb

The other day I decided I needed some tea, so I decided to stop off at Margaret's shop, which I've written about before. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that it was nowhere to be seen.

Oh, calamity! I hadn't shopped there often enough. I hadn't bought enough stuff. She was broke and living on the street and it was all my fault.

The next week I discovered that she hadn't closed, but simply moved a few blocks away to Forbes Avenue, right next door to Rose Tea Cafe. The new location, now named Margaret's Fine Imports, is much larger than the old space, and has a nice, open, airy feeling.

You should stop by and check it out if you are in the market for a new brown betty or coffee mug.

Posted by peterb at 07:42 PM | Comments (1)

October 03, 2006

The NPR I Want

by psu

When I drive to visit my extended family, we take a route from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts that crisscrosses through upstate New York. It's not a long drive, but it is not a trivial one either, so it's important to have distractions in the car.

In the past, this has meant radio, but there is a problem with radio. There are large patches of the route that are, for all intents and purposes, radio-free. In these areas, the only strong signals are filled with strange genres of pop/country music or people preaching the true word of the Lord.

We would hit one of these dry patches, and daydream about a Utopia where the national NPR is available everywhere. Then we resign ourselves to playing tapes (a long time ago), CDs (not so long ago), or more recently, the iPod.

The iPod, as a device, brings with it a heady promise. The promise is that you can carry your audio (and to a limited extent, video) entertainment with you at all times, and call it up at will, whenever you want, wherever you want.

Sadly, the available media have not quite come to grips with how to provide their bits in a form that can be placed on the iPod. There are licensing issues, production issues, and a myriad of other complications that make it impossible to fulfill what seems like a simple request.

This is all I want:

I want the national feed of either of the major NPR news shows (ATC or Morning Edition), downloadable to my iPod, without any of the local interruptions. That's all.

I realize that NPR is both ethically and legally bound to the pursuit of supporting local broadcasting, and that a certain percentage of the stories in the national shows are produced by local affiliates. However, I am a cynical and selfish bastard and I really just don't care. The problem with local NPR stations is that they mostly suck. Hardly any manage to hire competent staff. If they do manage this feat, much of the staff is wasted covering the latest regulations regarding the use of the bed of a pickup truck to haul passengers, or the most recent reason why the city government is going bankrupt. This is nothing I want to listen to.

I also don't really care about the newscast or other segments that might be produced live and would therefore be difficult to quickly convert into MP3 format. I can get the headlines from anywhere and I don't need NPR to repackage them for me. The national headlines tends to be where NPR is weakest anyway. Inevitably they fall into the moron pack mentality that characterizes most of modern journalism. They must report anything and everything 24 hours a day even if they have no facts and nothing interesting to say about the no facts that they have.

No, all I want are the nice stories that NPR produces for the national feed in a single audio file somewhere that is easy to download and transfer to my iPod so I can listen to it whenever and wherever I happen to be. I would be willing to pay a reasonable fee for this service. Probably more than I give to the local NPR station for the privilege of listening to their nasal, scratchy voices, stuttering delivery, and the traffic reporter who is never on the other end of the phone. Almost any price would be a bargain.

I'm not holding my breath.

Posted by psu at 09:15 PM | Comments (5)

October 02, 2006

"Keep Playing, It Might Get Better"

by peterb

I'm currently having an "I wish I had written that" moment over Andrew Smale's article "Keep Playing, It Might Get Better."

The best line in the article doesn't actually appear in his article, but on Andrew's blog where he says about Prey "I knew it was awful the moment I stepped through the asshole." I wish I had said that in my review — because at that exact moment in the game, I actually thought to myself "Uh oh. They have no ideas." Instead I got wanky and philosophical. Andrew's article is better.

Posted by peterb at 05:15 PM | Comments (0)

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