November 29, 2006


by peterb

Some weeks are made for long and thoughtful articles. And some are just made for top 10 lists.

In the queue: Nintendo Wii, íViva Pi˝ata!, and an assortment of other games. But for tonight, we have monkeys.

22. The dominant monkey (pdinda)

21. The favorite monkey who's friends with the dominant monkey (pdinda)

20. The monkey who's right (pdinda)

19. The monkey who makes sure all the other monkeys around them are happy (jch)

18. The monkey with the Stilton (psu)

17. The monkey with the biggest, brightest fluorescent ass (scottd)

16. Monkey at the top of the tower with the sniper rifle (jch)

15. Monkey who has to pretend to know everything (jch)

14. The monkey with the Covenant energy sword (psu)

13. The monkey that stole my lantern (peterb)

12. The nameless monkey (psu)

11. Heartwarming monkey with Down's Syndrome (jch)

10. Code monkey (peterb)

9. Shit-flinging monkey (jch)

8. Monkey who reads my weblog and finds a comment written by a chick he doesn't know and then sends her email asking her out. I hate that fucking creepy monkey. (peterb)

7. The monkey whose smile always seems just a little too forced (roc)

6. Naughty monkey (peterb)

5. The giant invisible and omnipotent monkey in the sky who loves you but needs money (pdinda)

4. Peter Nesmith (dlc)

3. Grammar monkey (psu)

2. Free monkey in the box of cereal (jch)

1. The monkey who replies to your email in under a minute, proving he has nothing to do except check email over and over and over again in the hope of receiving tasty pellets (roc)

Posted by peterb at 07:00 PM | Comments (0)

November 28, 2006

Foods That Sound Like Sexual Positions

by peterb

Wikipedia may have a longer list, but here at Tea Leaves we know that size doesn't matter. Much.

20. The Salty Lassi (peterb)

19. The Slab Apricot (peterb)

18. Toad in the Hole (jch)

17. Chicken Tikka (rajesh)

16. Bubble and Squeak (jch)

15. Cherry Tart (peterb)

14. Dublin coddle (rlink)

13. Black and Tan (peterb)

12. Apple Turnover (rlink)

11. Pumpkin. (baird)

10. Hot mustard pretzel (mwm)

9. Pigs in a blanket (mwm)

8. Hand Roll (peterb)

7. Over hard / Over easy (rlink)

6. Forcemeat (rlink)

5. Head cheese (mwm)

4. Jelly Roll (peterb)

3. Hot Toddy (rlink)

2. Banana Split Brownie Pizza (mwm)

1. Bangers and Mash (rlink)

Posted by peterb at 10:35 AM | Comments (4)

November 27, 2006

Football on TV

by psu

I've been watching some football in HD on my big TV this year. Since all HD broadcast options at this time in our history are about as appealing as drinking sewage for lunch, I've been doing it over the air. Today my antenna would not pick up FOX, so I watched the game on my Tivo instead. As a result, I missed much of the experience of the live broadcast.

1. The 10 minutes of commercials on either side of a score as they cut away after the extra point and after the kickoff.

2. The interminable video reviews due to challenges or "booth" reviews. The replay rules in the NFL are the dumbest thing to be added to a sports rulebook since they made zone defense illegal in the NBA. They fixed the zone rules in the NBA, the NFL should fix this too.

3. The "reporter on the field" segments. Who are these reporters on the field? This has to be the dregs of the dregs as far as a position in sports broadcasting is concerned.

4. Promos for intellectually offensive series TV on Fox (or CBS). The best are the ones that involve decapitated bodies and bloody stumps in the promo during "family" viewing time.

5. The dozens of on-the-field time outs. The recent fashion here is to call a time out milliseconds before the opposing team snaps the ball for a field goal, so they have to set up and run the whole play again. In the future, doing this should result in an automatic 3 points for the team kicking the field goal and they should be able to run the play again.

6. Bud light commercials.

7. Random booth chatter between plays and after the TV timeouts.

8. The two minute warning. What is this for? Are we really saying that 60 grown men can't figure out that there are two minutes left in the game?

9. The endless animations of the some combination of the NFL logo and the network TV logo.

10. Those touching "get to know" the player segments where we find out that the quarterback's favorite band are the Dixie Chicks and he hangs out in leather S&M clubs with his wife and mistress in his spare time. I made that up.

All of this probably accounted for an hour out of a 3+ hour broadcast. It's really too bad that I lost all of this because my antenna didn't work right. I wonder if it's working now. I wonder when there will be an HD Tivo solution that doesn't require a budget the size of the Department of Defense to acquire.

Capitalism has failed me again.

Posted by psu at 09:47 AM | Comments (6)

November 23, 2006

Life Imitates South Park

by peterb

It's the United Atheist Alliance that has the correct answer to the Great Question. Science damn you!

Posted by peterb at 02:05 PM | Comments (2)

November 22, 2006

Off the Online Wagon

by psu

Clearly the end of the world is upon us. Not only did the New York Times review the new PS3 this week, but in doing so they quoted that bastion of high quality online gaming journalism: Joystiq. The rest of the review went on to skewer the machine. The main complaint? The online service is clunky and hard to use.

I found this odd. Now, I'm as much of a fan of online interactions as anyone. I buy most of my CDs and books online. I sit and chat with my friends online. I spend too much time wanking on this web site. But as far as games are concerned, I just can't get excited anymore. It's pretty rare for me to actually take advantage of multiplayer gaming in Xbox Live these days. This was not always the case.

When I got the first Xbox, XBox Live was a great thing. Every couple of nights, eight of us would get on and kill Counterstrike bots for a few hours. The integrated friends list, private servers and the nice invite system made this easy.

After about six months of this, the whole thing died down and has never picked up again. There were two basic reasons for this.

1. People moved. A core group of Counterstrikers now live in the wrong time zone. This makes it hard to pick up a game.

2. People bought different games. Halo 2 and Splinter Cell were the big ones. But not everyone liked to play these games in the multiplayer. Splinter Cell in particular is hard to get into. You die a lot. A lot of people now spend most of their time online playing WoW. I bet this is not an insignificant effect.

As a result, I stopped playing games online. This is because of the Fundamental Theorem of Online Gameplay:

Playing online with people you don't know sucks.

This cannot be overstated. Sturgeon's law applies here in triplicate. 99.99% of everyone you meet in a random online game are racist, immature, illiterate assholes. Therefore, it is only worth playing with people that you know or have had previous interactions with to indicate that they are not racist immature illiterate assholes.

The result of all this is that while I appreciate the design and execution of Xbox Live, and the friends list, and the invite system, the truth is I hardly ever use it. Even when there is a great game to try out with my friends (Gears of War), it hasn't really come together. I did manage to participate in some chainsawing goodness with the people over at GWJ, thus avoiding the fundamental theorem. But even though some in the old Counterstrike crowd have had the game for more than a week, we have not been able to try out the co-op or get into a nice team killing match.

These days, my main use for Xbox Live is downloading game demos so I am sure to never buy another Ubisoft Shooter. All I really need for this is a net connection and a browser interface. No friends list, no online co-op, no developer time wasted on multiplayer modes that are nowhere near as good as Halo anyway, no "gamer points", no "achievements". What the hell are achievements anyway? In other words, it seems to me that most of the extras in Xbox Live are just fluff around a core functionality that is hard to care about anymore.

So while there are many reasons to not buy a PS3, a clunky online interface is not one of them. Both Nintendo and Sony will have time to put some polish on their download systems, and that's all most people will really care about in my opinion. Because ya know, everyone has exactly the same needs as I do.

Posted by psu at 08:31 AM | Comments (1)

November 21, 2006

Susan Stamberg Delenda Est

by peterb

I've written about it before, but every year around Thanksgiving, Susan Stamberg gets on NPR to pimp her family's disgusting cranberry relish, and so I feel that it is my duty to protect my readers: Mama Stamberg's cranberry relish was revolting the first time it was made, it was revolting the last time it was made, it is an inherently revolting recipe and if you make it, and claim to enjoy it, you are an overprivileged and self-deluded yuppie wretch.

Make my relish instead. Happy Thanksgiving!

Posted by peterb at 08:50 PM | Comments (1)

November 20, 2006

Gears and Guns and Guitars and Stuff

by psu

With the Wii and the PS3 sold out, I sat down for a peaceful weekend with games I had already bought. For the 360, I had been itching to play a decent shooter, and with some trepidation I picked up Gears of War. I'm happy to say that it doesn't suck.

The hype for Gears of War was overwhelming. When the game finally arrived, the press for it made me nervous. While the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, there seemed to be a subtext in each one that was telling you in code that the game was no good, but that the review had to be good because this was the game that would justify the existence of the Xbox 360.

After playing the game for a week, I am ready to say that the game does what a good shooter must set out to do: the shooting is fun. The pacing and combat in the game is well implemented, if a bit repetitive. The core mechanic is pleasingly tactical, especially in the multiplayer. You scoot from place to place, keeping your head down, biding your time until the enemy pops out of cover and lets you shoot it. Then you open up and make things blow up. When you do this right, you get a pleasurable little rush.

When a shooter gets the combat right, you can forgive it a lot of problems, and this is the case with Gears. So now I get to complain.

The AI is not great. There are stupid checkpoints. At times, the combined cover/roll mechanic goes haywire, and you end up stuck to a rock somewhere rather than rolling out of the way of an oncoming missile. This generally leads to your death and a temptation to throw the controller.

There are Boss battles of uninspired and derivative design. In one case, I ended up fighting one guy for an hour because every time I figured out how to not get killed, my stupid robot partner would get himself killed. Note to Cliffy: don't make me escort your retarded A.I characters through your stupid Boss battles.

The plot and narrative in the game barely exists. You are dropped into a bombed out city and you run from place to place shooting things until the you get to the next checkpoint. Then you rest and do it all again. There isn't much in the way of character development, but the characters are sort of fun anyway.

There are a few weird production issues. It seems to me that both the environments and the colors used to fill them in are overly bland. The blood effects looks cartoony and stupid. Finally, the sound effects are too loud and annoying. Even if you turn the audio down, every once in a while some grunt will vomit loudly in your face. This is annoying.

The game is on the short side. I'm already into the last chapter after less than a week. That's very fast for me. The multiplayer and co-op will be good for some replay. But, for a game that is supposed to be Halo until the next Halo comes out, they could have at least implemented a decent matchmaking system. The multiplayer lobby in this game is a crippled mess. Once you get in a game though, the multiplayer is a nice change. The game rewards good team play and good tactics, and there is no respawn. It's more like Counterstrike than Halo, and that's a good thing.

Overall, I am happy enough with the game that I'm not sending it to Ebay immediately. But, as a reality check, I do have to say that this game is no console-defining franchise. The flow of the single player game is not as pleasing as Halo 2, and the multiplayer is not nearly as polished.

Still, when was the last time there was a shooter on the Xbox that didn't suck? And the best part is, between matches I can play Guitar Hero 2.

Guitar Hero 2 is as good as it ever was. I can't disagree with Pete when he says that it's a better game with music that is not as good. Still, the big Rock Anthems (Freebird, etc) are a blast to play, and the practice mode is letting me get further into Hard than I could have on Guitar Hero 1. I'm 10 songs into Hard and I may yet learn how to shift my hands around fast enough to get through the rest of the sets. But I doubt it.

The co-op mode is also a blast. Pete and I were rocking out on Freebird last night and I thought our drummer really would explode.

In summary, Gears of War is a great core shooter wrapped up in a shell with some problems. Guitar Hero 2 is more fun than should be allowed to be packaged into a single DVD.

Now that that's out of the way, I can start on Final Fantasy 12.

Posted by psu at 05:16 PM | Comments (8)

November 17, 2006

Launch Day

by psu

Having observed three or four launch days in my short time dabbling with computer games, I will never quite understand the psychology of it. It seems like gamers have a sort of bi-polar passive agressive OCD when it comes to product launches.

On the one hand, in the lead up to the big day you have article after article about how supply is bad, the launch titles are bad, the hardware is overpriced, the bundles are stupidly expensive, the accessories are lame, and the pack-in extras nearly worthless. None of this is surprising, because it's all true. Launch titles are notoriously bad. For some reason, the hardware manufacturers think it's a great idea to launch even though they don't have enough to sell and, you know, make a profit. Retailers have a captive audience to which they can attach arbitrary numbers of useless items while filling their coffers with the extra margins.

The thing is, everyone knows this. We all know it's a scam. We all know it will be months or years before the hardware is really worth buying. So here is my question: given this, and given that the weeks before the launch are spent whining about exactly these problems, why is it that on the day itself, you find people waiting in line in the snow, in the rain, in the cold, in the mud, 9 months pregnant, and then getting shot just to get this piece of hardware that apparently no rational being on the face of the earth should have any interest in actually purchasing?

Why then can you flip a new PS3 on Ebay for $2500?

Why all the collective suffering over something that according to the news reports two weeks ago, nobody wants?

Can anyone answer this question for me?

Anyway, good luck on Sunday with the Wii.

Posted by psu at 09:34 PM | Comments (4)

November 16, 2006

Don't Be A Stupid Girl

by peterb
I'm sure J.K. Rowling gets enough acclamation from everyone in the world that she doesn't need my approval as well. But nonetheless, here's a tip of the hat to her for writing this short essay on the common obsession of worrying about one's looks and, specifically, fat.

It's not simply for the content of her essay, which is typically simply written, personal, direct, and to the point, but because she pointed me towards the artist "Pink" and her song "Stupid Girls" (iTunes link).

The song is good.

The video, however, (YouTube link, iTunes link) moves beyond the realm of "good" into "magically awesome." (Used in a sentence: "Gabriel Garcia-Marquez's novel 100 Years of Solitude is an example of the literary style known as magical awesomeness.")

Posted by peterb at 10:34 PM | Comments (1)

November 15, 2006

Small Favors

by psu

Winter in Pittsburgh can be a cold and cruel time. The weather turns gray, with a chilly wind and the occasional slushy rain. It has been this way this week in Pittsburgh, but I haven't let it beat me down because I have made two small but uplifting discoveries.

At work, we have this superautomatic espresso machine. You pour beans and water in one end, and shots of black espresso come out the other. The problem is that the shots are too small and the espresso is not that good. I'm tired of it.

I have also been searching for a solution to the problem of making coffee for groups at home. Normally, I use a single cup filter scheme or a Moka Pot, but neither of these work for 3 or more people. Then, last week in the strip I spied a dusty box sitting on top of one of the shelves. It was an 8 cup carafe and a really huge version of the single cup filter that I have used for years. Perfect!

One problem remained. The thin glass carafe does not keep the coffee hot.

To the web I went, listing insulated containers of all shapes and sizes. The carafe-shaped ones cost ludicrous amounts of money. The thermos shaped ones were not that much cheaper. I stared at a crushed and defeated man.

Then, the other day, I was at the Target buying Gears of War, and I saw what I wanted on the shelf. A two-layer stainless steel vacuum insulated bottle. Big enough to hold coffee for 4 and keep it hot for a nearly arbitary amount of time. As a bonus, it was much cheaper than any of the failed products at Amazon. Yay for Target.

The bottle has also solved my coffee-at-work problem. I can make a whole bottle full at home in the morning and bring it to work for the whole day. Since drinking a whole liter of coffee every day would kill me, I can also share it with my co-workers and gain their esteem as a man of culture and taste. "What is this excellent coffee" they will ask me, my ego inflating the whole time.

As a bonus, against all expectations, Gears of War turns out to not suck. It only took a year, but finally the Xbox 360 has a core shooting game to call its own which is not some piece of shit from Ubisoft.

So, as winter approaches and the cold rain falls outside, all I can say to the world is: thanks for small favors.

Posted by psu at 08:11 PM | Comments (1)

November 14, 2006

The Computer Science D&D Spellbook

by peterb

We can't help it. We're doubly cursed: we program computers and we spent all our time in Junior High School playing D&D while you were having sloppy makeouts at the good parties we weren't invited to.

So let's do this thing.

21. Detect Lie Algebra (agroce)

20. Osterhaut's Ostentatious Optimization (peterb)

19. Summon Dire Knuth (peterb)

18. Prismatic Assert (peterb)

17. Detect Dijkstra (psu)

16. Ready, Set, Unify (psu)

15. Comprehend O-Notation (peterb)

14. Triple Convex Hull Tanker (psu)

13. Patch (peterb)

12. Cause Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (peterb)

11. Cure Serious Bug (roc)

10. Unwind Stack (psu)

9. Dispel Bubblesort (jch)

8. Create Illusion (Of Progress) (roc)

7. Power Word Kill -9 (baird)

6. Bigby's Finger of Blame (jch)

5. Collect Garbage (psu)

4. Virtualize Self (baird)

3. Polymorph Args (baird)

2. Decompose Singular Value (psu)

1. Tenser's Floating Heap (peterb)

Posted by peterb at 06:51 PM | Comments (11)

November 13, 2006

Live in Your World, Pay in Ours

by psu

I saw a Playstation 3 kiosk at the local Target tonight. It looks like for $600 you can buy a box that renders a desert and a motorcycle with a remarkably high level of detail that is also remarkably free from the standard flickery jaggy "looks-like-ass" filter that the Playstation 2 adds to all of its pictures. As far as I could tell, the object of the game was to drive the motorcycle over a cliff repeatedly and watch the character fall through the air while making a very loud noise. Yet another reason to never buy a console before 1 year after launch day.

I followed this rule for all of my current-gen consoles, and it has served me well. You get mature hardware and more importantly, a mature game library with a good mix of new and old, expensive and cheap.

I followed this rule with the hand-helds. The DS and GBA being pretty big wins and the PSP being a bit more iffy.

I did not follow this rule with the Xbox 360. The box has sat in my living room waiting for another game to play after Obvlivion, and has only found spotty support. Even now, a full year after launch, I barely got up the gumption to buy a new shooter that has been hyped to the moon, but still doesn't seem that promising.

At least when this one sucks I'll be able to sell it on Ebay for $50 like the last new 360 game I bought. That works out to less than the Gamefly rental fee for the month. Thank god for having a friend who ebays stuff for you.

Posted by psu at 07:27 PM | Comments (2)

November 09, 2006

Guitar Hero II: First Impressions

by peterb

Like everyone else with a PS2 and even a little bit of soul in them, I bought Guitar Hero II this week.

I'm still getting used to it, but here are some quick impressions.

Likes: They seem to have increased the overall difficulty of the songs, but they coupled it with making the overall mechanics noticeably easier. The game is much more forgiving now, and much more likely to spot you "almost" notes. Hammer ons and pull offs are a thousand times easier, since they got rid of the requirement that you have all the notes held down when you start them. And "Trogdor" is a bonus song. The red guitar is nicer looking than the black one. The new multiplayer cooperative mode, which lets one player play lead while the other plays rhythm or bass is also a nice touch, although I think it's dumb that you can fail the song. And, of course, the practice mode is essential for old, slow guys like me.

Dislikes: as in the previous game, the indicator that a note is hammerable-on is way too subtle for my tastes. I want something obvious. Like perhaps a glowing electric gopher holding a neon sign that says "DO A HAMMER ON ON THIS NOTE, SCHMUCK ---->" I also don't like the new model for Pandora.

Neutral: I'm not thrilled with the song selection; I wanted more power pop and less metal. But I recognize that that's not really a reasonable request for a game about being a guitar rock god. Fortunately, there are Guitar Hero clones for the PC (and, apparently, for the Mac also!), so if I really want to play guitar along to Code Monkey, I can. Albeit with much less polish. This, more than anything, was why I didn't wait for the Xbox 360 version, along with its innumerable opportunities to spend more money on music I already own.

In summary, if you are one of the people who would rather play Final Fantasy XII instead of this game, you are clinically dead.

Posted by peterb at 11:32 PM | Comments (4)

November 08, 2006

We Have Always Been At War With Mesopotamia

by peterb

When briefed on election results, President Bush declared that the Republican Party was on a path to victory. He further chided media reports that emphasized results in House races.

Tip of the hat to Rochberg for the joke...

Posted by peterb at 09:01 AM | Comments (0)

The Camera I Want

by psu

Back in 1998, I was shooting black and white film and printing in the darkroom and generally talking trash about how crappy digital capture was at the time. I put the digital takeover at least ten years out, although later I would update my estimate to only five years on the outside. For various reasons, I turned out to be wrong about that. Less than ten years later, digital capture has all but killed film not only in much of the mass market, but in almost all of the pro market as well. Which makes me wonder: with the digital camera marketplace so mature and dominant, why has no one made the digital camera that I really want?

Back in the good old days all cameras had a pretty standard shape that was compact without being too small, and hefty without being too heavy. Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and especially Olympus all made small-body SLR cameras that were nice to use and not much bigger than the king of the elegant small camera: the Leica. The result was that normal people could carry a nice camera and a single focal length lens in the top pocket of a small bag or backpack without worrying about it too much.

By the 1990s, this type of camera had disappeared. It was replaced on the low end by plastic point and shoots and on the high end by 5 pound motorized semi-automatic cannon, able to shoot a whole roll of film in 10 seconds. The Leica became just a boutique museum piece, and aside from the occasional Nikon FM2, you didn't really see small "serious" cameras anymore. To some extent this probably makes sense. The point and shoots work better for their intended audience, as does the 5 pound war machine.

The digital camera marketplace is a mirror of this world. On the low end, there are a myriad of point and shoot type cameras that come in sizes starting at the size of your pinky finger all the way up to the size of a real camera. They attempt to emulate the size and convenience of film point and shoots, but they mostly get it wrong. The little computer inside them makes it too easy to add stupid features and make the machine too complicated and therefore useless. They tend to have slow and error-prone autofocus because for some reason they use "passive" ccd-based systems rather than more reliable active systems. Finally, they are too slow from shot to shot.

On the high end are digital versions of the standard NikoCanon automatic pro SLR circa 1995. Big bodies, big lenses, and a big flash to go along with it. Even the Rebel is there, with its crappy viewfinder and questionable handling.

What's missing is the camera to sit between these extremes. Yes, Leica has finally made a digital M camera, and there is no doubt that it will be beautiful. But it will also cost as much as a small used car, and for that price you don't even get a lens.

What I really want is a digital Konica Hexar. In the film world, this was a small camera that was fast to use, had a great viewfinder, good autofocus, and it was relatively inexpensive. On the surface, the Hexar doesn't seem that different from the current crop of high end point and shoot digicams. But for me, the camera has to do four things that the digitals don't.

1. I want the fantastic optical viewfinder. Shooting with a dinky LCD screen sucks. Electronic viewfinders suck. Most low end digital SLR viewfinders also suck. The Hexar viewfinder was big and bright, making it easy to frame your shot, even in the dark.

2. I want better focus. Either give me autofocus that works or let me focus myself in the fantastic viewfinder. The Hexar used infared beams to focus. It could hit focus in the dark with a high degree of reliability. I would be happy with this, or with an SLR-style focus system with a single high-performance sensor. But really, manual would be OK too.

3. I want digicam size but with a D-SLR imaging pipeline. There is no reason why, these days, the imaging pipeline in a camera the size of the Hexar can't be as fast as a D50 or something.

4. I want a fast single focal length lens. Please please please give me a 35/2 or 50/1.4 equivalent lens. I don't care if it's glued there like on the Hexar. I don't need to change lenses anyway, it just gets the camera dirty. Just don't put another useless 35-600 f4-10.8 zoom lens that I don't care about on this camera. I think nothing has done more to destroy the general state of causal photography than the point and shoot zoom lens.

Panasonic and Olympus have both come close to building me this camera. Sadly, they both just miss. The Olympus SLR bodies are too SLR-like. The Panasonics are shaped right, but have questionable handling and slow image processing. The Panasonic L1 claims to handle like a real camera, but has a teeny tiny viewfinder that isn't even as good as a Rebel. Also, neither Panasonic or Olympus seem to think that making a high quality single focal semi-wide lens is worth their time.

The Epson/Cosina RD-1 is also a possibility, but it also has questionable handling. Needing to wind the shutter by hand is a nice retro touch, but for what this camera costs they could have put in a motor to do this for me.

So, as crazy as it seems, in the entire modern marketplace, the only camera I've found that comes close to this specification is the new Leica M8. I guess one way to look at it is, the camera is only 1/20th the cost of a Porshe 911. That's not too bad.

Posted by psu at 07:30 AM | Comments (1)

November 07, 2006

The One True Index

by psu

There is a great scene in the film High Fidelity where one of Jon Cusack's buddies comes over to see if the wants to go clubbing, and finds Cusack on the floor of his apartment surrounded by piles of records. He asks how he is filing the albums, and after some discussion, Cusack spills the beans: "Autobiographical."

I don't think I own as many records as the character in High Fidelity, but in my few decades on this Earth, I have accumulated a small pile of albums and CDs. I don't find storing the albums much of a problem. The records don't take up that much horizontal space, and it's easy to keep them in roughly alphabetical order.

However, I've never had any luck finding a nice filing system for CDs. Multiple factors play into this.

1. I hate jewel boxes. They are ludicrously large for what they do. But without them it's hard to browse the disks by the spine of the box.

2. No good shelving.

3. Internal fragmentation. I always find myself running out of one sort of room or another and needing to shuffle the disks around and constantly refile them.

The result of this is that for the last eight or nine years, I've just put my CDs in a big pile.

To make things worse, the advent of iTunes means that I now spend most of my time interacting with my CDs via their ripped representation in the computer. The computer makes it easy to find the music, you just type in the search box. But now I have a tendency to rip a disk and completely forget about it, and then it is lost forever. You really need to keep the disk around for the little liner book and other information that iTunes misses.

Then, one afternoon, I found the perfect solution. It is axiomatic that there is one true way to keep track of information in a computer. You store your database as a collection of items, each of which has various distinguishing attributes. Relational database technology teaches us that organizing the information by any given attribute is suicide, since it makes reorganizing based on other atttributes hard.

Therefore, take your item and give it a single unique immutable serial number. Then, on the side, build a bunch of indexes that map the various attribute values to the serial number.

We practice this method on this here weblog. Each article gets a number and then google maps keywords to article numbers which happen to be encoded in the URL.

For CDs, the logical way to apply this principle is:

1. Give every CD a number as you rip it.

2. Put the number in iTunes. Then you can find any CD you own just by searching iTunes the same way you always do.

3. Store all the CDs in a box, ordered by serial number.

This system avoids most of the problems that used to annoy me. I never have to shuffle the disks to make room, because I'm only ever appending disks to the collection. I can store the disks in handy little plastic sleeves because I don't need the jewel box spine to allow me to find them anymore. Finally, I can fit most of my CD collection into a relatively small space. A couple of dresser drawers.

There are only two disadvantages, one of which is inherent in CDs as a medium:

1. You can't spend an afternoon running your finger along the spines of your records and looking at the nice huge covers. This is because CDs only come with teeny little thumbnails.

2. The index is stored in iTunes, so I have to be careful not to lose it.

These are minor annoyances at best. The new album view in iTunes is like a little virtual bookshelf that never runs out of room, and I still have my actual LPs to fondle when I get the urge. I also have to back up all those songs anyway, lest my iPod become as a brick.

So, there you have it. For better or worse, database engineering intrudes into yet another aspect of daily life. I've been slowly ripping, numbering, and filing my disks over the last few months whenever I have a few free minutes. At the current rate, I should be done in a few years.


I should note that this scheme was not entirely of my devising. A similar idea came over the chat system (thanks pdinda) one afternoon.. My only real contribution was buying the dresser drawers.

Posted by psu at 07:30 AM | Comments (5)

November 06, 2006

Out I Never Did Figure It

by peterb

When I still used to DJ regularly, I conformed to all of the college radio stereotypes. I spoke in the obligatory disinterested monotone (MP3 recording of a simulation here), played obscure bands on minor labels, and inflicted unlistenable electronic garbage upon my listeners.

I was sophisticated. I was hipper than thou. I was, in short, a complete jackass.

As I've gotten older, my tastes in music have both expanded and calcified. I'm willing to listen to almost anything, but there needs to be some hook, some immediate accessibility to let me in to the music. Noise and industrial soundscapes are simply not in the equation: when someone asks me to listen to something inscrutable, I ask myself: why am I wasting valuable time that could be spent listening to Tom Waits, instead?

While I'm sure this might deprive me of a lot of exciting new music, all is not lost, for there is one side door I have left open: I'm an absolute sucker for covers.

The cover is accesibility personified. It's a chance to witness the conflict between authorial intent and artistic reinterpretation from the front row. They can range anywhere from straightfoward and mundane, like Lana Lane's cover of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" (iTunes link) to profane and funny mockery, as in Oizone's cover of Tracy Chapman's ballad "Baby Can I Hold You" (iTunes link). At their best, covers can completely subvert and coopt their source material. Johnny Cash's cover of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt" does this so completely that even Trent Reznor agrees: it's not his song anymore. It's Johnny Cash's song now (watch the video here).

Finding covers before the Internet was a fairly haphazard activity, but today you can just subscribe to Copy, Right?, who regularly posts excerpts from covers so good (or, sometimes, so bad) it will make your head explode.

The other thing that has changed recently is that with the advent of better and easier to use computer music tools, it's now amazingly easy for rank amateurs to create and distribute their own music. And sometimes, that music is a cover. Which brings us to an odd little project called Look What the Fans Drug In.

Look What the Fans Drug In is a project to record and distribute fan-remakes of nearly every song recorded by pop artist and producer Michael Penn, Sean's older brother. Most people know of Michael Penn for his greatest achievement, which was marrying Aimee Mann. But it turns out that he has recorded some music too. His production values are very similar to Mann's, leaning towards syncopation and combining sparse leads with layered backgrounds. His lyrics tend towards literary self-indulgence, but are emotionally sincere.

I'm somewhat fascinated with this fan-made tribute project for a few reasons. First, I know most of the music, which surely makes it more interesting. But it's also audacious in terms of its sheer scope. The performances range in quality from somewhat embarassing to professional-sounding and fun. I won't pick on the bad ones. These people aren't trying to sell anything, and I see no reason to put down a sincere effort. The songs I didn't like tended to have two things in common. First, an overly rigorous reliance on a click track or drum machine. You want to have some rhythm, but many of these just sounded too mechanical. The second problem is, quite simply, that some of these artists are trying a bit too hard to sound like Michael Penn, to the point of matching accents, intonations, inflections, and so on. I think a number of these songs would have been much better if the artists had been willing to bring the song to themselves, rather than simply immersing themselves in it.

Some of the high points of the collection were Michel Drucker's cover of "Macy Day Parade" (mp3), Allen Walker's rendition of "Drained" (mp3), and Andrea Zils' "O.K." (mp3). You can download the entire collection — including liner notes and album covers for CDs, should you wish to burn them, here. The project apparently has Penn's blessing, so download without guilt. Then come back here, and share which ones you particularly liked.

Incidentally, Penn has done the odd cover himself — on the Badlands tribute album, he and Mann covered Bruce Springsteen's "Reason to Believe" (also known as "The only song on the Nebraska album that doesn't make the listener want to slit her or his wrists.") A sample is here, courtesy of Heartache with Hard Work.

So someone should let me know when the Nick Cave cover project starts. I've got this idea for this doo-wop/a capella version of "Red Right Hand"...

Posted by peterb at 06:26 PM | Comments (19)

November 01, 2006

Selected Problems in Computability

by peterb

Sometimes, we do hardcore research in computer science. It's in our blood. Here are some of the papers we have submitted to various academic journals at the moment.

10. The Travelling Salsman problem (peterb)

9. Mutual Exclusion in the Men's Room (psu)

8. "Given a description of a program and a finite input, decide whether the program is a lousy piece of fucking garbage." Also known as the Hating problem. (peterb)

7. Compute the value of pie to an arbitrary number of diners. (peterb)

6. Finding an assignment of substitute teachers that makes any 3 variable logical formulae true, also known as 3SUB (psu)

5. For any non-trivial property of partial functions, the question of whether a given algorithm computes a partial function with this property is irritating. (peterb)

4. The Unstable Marriage problem (psu)

3. Redundant Array of Idiot Developers (peterb, with props to sdavis for the assist)

2. All Cretans are liars. No, seriously. Have you ever been to Crete? I mean, Jesus. (peterb)

1. Automatic Path planning in hostile environments: the Blood Gulch case study (psu)

0. The Speculative Dining Philosopher's Problem: Eat dessert first. (psu)

Posted by peterb at 10:13 PM | Comments (4)

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