Five applications I couldn't live without

Okay, so maybe the title of this post is just a little melodramatic. I could certainly live without them. In my fits of whimsy, I sometimes imagine a life where I got rid of all my software and all my computers and went to live in a cabin in the woods with a typewriter, only peeking my head out long enough to release some bone-crunchingly beautiful prose like Annie Dillard or something.

Until that day, here's the five pieces of software I couldn't live without

(In no order)

Instiki

I don't like Word documents because they're mean and nasty and hard to access and I tend to get so bogged down in making my documents look pretty, I never get anything actually written. At the same time, I don't like text files because they're so plain and isolated and static. Yet I need some way to keep track of a lot of things.

Enter Instiki.

Just a small personal wiki site that lets you keep all of your documents together. It has all of the advantages of a full website such as links to other places and documents, and the ability to view it from anywhere but with more like an easier markup language (I am fluent in MarkDown) and an easier management interface.

I use my Instiki to keep track of work projects, personal tasks (e.g. "Move bank account") and various other notes that I want to keep in a local place, such as my personal 'wishlist' of all the fancy stuff I want to buy myself.

Quicksilver

Quicksilver is like a remote control for my Mac. It has cut the amount of time I spend doing noddy things like finding the application I want to launch or browsing to files to append a word to the end of them.

And I'm constantly finding out new cool things to do with Quicksilver. Browse over to Merlin Mann's 43 folders if you want some real Quicksilver evangelism.

Synergy

Like many people working in the IT community, I need to have a Windows machine on my desktop in work for all the proprietary applications that we use and that I can't get a Mac version of. Using Synergy, I am able to control both my PC and my Mac from the same keyboard and mouse. Without it, my desktop would be a mess of cables, keyboards and mice. With it, my desktop is empty and zen-like beautiful.

Virtue or Desktop Manager

Coming from Linux, I learned the amount of joy that virtual desktops can bring. Now, it's hard for me to imagine working without them. You might as well ask me to work with one hand tied behind my back: they're that essential* to me (Microsoft has finally picked up on the importance of Virtual Desktops and included it as part of the 'Power Tools' for Windows XP and then went on to try and patent the idea).

Both Virtue and Desktop Manager are fine, free Virtual Desktop managers. I have yet to see someone fail to be impressed by Virtue's window-switching animations (if you've seen Panther's fast user switching in action then you know what I'm talking about), but it doesn't seem to be written as well as Desktop Manager, so you will end up fighting with it a little bit more.

But it's so pretty, it's almost worth it.

Pheeder

I've tried a lot of RSS readers on the Mac, and until Pheeder, I wasn't blown away by any of them. They either try out some fancy interface tricks and end up looking just plain dumb, or else they just lack basic features (how can we have an RSS reader in 2005 without a "Mark all as read" button?!).

Pheeder is by far the best RSS reader I've found on the Mac.

I love its simplicity and its power and even the elegant choice of colours and fonts. What I especially like is the ability to click on a feed name and get a one-page overview of all the articles in that feed. This way, when I'm in a rush, I can scan over a feed quickly without lots of clicking.

I only have two complaints. It is expensive, for what it is. At $25, it's roughly a quarter of the price of Panther but with only a fraction of the functionality. And I don't know how relevant it will be after Tiger launches with its built-in RSS support.


There was loads of other stuff that deserves a mention, so quick shouts to blender, ImageWell, del.icio.us and Romeo

The Fine Art of Sampling

I still say that the bottom dropping out of advertising revenues at the end of the dot-com 'bubble' was the best thing to ever happen to Wired Magazine. It gave them a kick up the ass and forced them to go back to producing material that was both relevant and interesting to their readers.

For example, before christmas they gave away a CD with every copy of their magazine. The CD was filled with tracks from artists like David Byrne, the Beastie Boys and Le Tigre. Nothing unusual there - magazines give away CDs of music all the time. The major difference being that this was all music licensed under a Creative Commons license. Titled "The Wired CD -- Rip. Mix. Sample. Mash. Share.", they (the artists and Wired) not only allowed people to do whatever they wanted with these tunes, they positively encouraged it. As part of this encouragement, Wired ran a competition where people would send in their mixes of the songs on this CD and the best ones would be put on another Wired cover CD, which they are going to title "The Wired CD -- Ripped. Mixed. Sampled. Mashed. Shared." (which is such a fantastic idea, it actually sends shivers down my spine).

Well, the winners were announced, and some of them are really good. I've got the original CD in my pc in work (although it barely touched, what with the amount of Philip Glass I end up playing during work) and it's impressive to listen to the amount of variation, epsecially when you consider that they're all coming from the same set of source tracks.

A remarkable response to the "sampling is not creating" argument.

Star Wars: Republic Commando

I have a couple of confessions to make.

The first one is easy: I didn't like Halo. I finished it and all, but that was mostly just because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The first couple of hours were exciting and new and the sense of adventure was enormous, but everything beyond that felt dull and monotonous. I couldn't wait for it to be over.

Yet, for all its comparisons to Halo, I'm enjoying Star Wars: Republic Commando immensely.

This is mostly because of the Star Wars connection, I suppose. The thought of being a no-name clone in charge of a troop of no-name clones is slightly appealing. It's welcoming after years of Star Wars games where you play Some New Hero, set to single-handedly save the universe. And especially so seeing the clone troopers kick oh so much ass in the Clone Wars cartoon.

But it's more than this. It addresses so many problems I have with these types of games, and this makes me love it beyond simple fanboyism.

It plays like Halo. But a better Halo. Like Halo taking place in a familiar universe. Instead of running down a generic corridor blasting generic alien enemies, I'm running down a corridor on a Star Destroyer, blasting characters I've seen in movies. It's a minor, cosmetic difference, but one that provides enough of a hook to keep me entertained for hours.

And the squad-based action enhances the differences. Makes it slightly better. I loved Full Spectrum Warrior. In my mind, the only way you could top FSW is by throwing it into the Star Wars universe and putting me in direct control of one of the guys. Just like Republic Commando.

You're no longer one man against an empire - you've got a bunch of squaddies behind you. And, when things get tough, in front of you too. At first it can feel a little unintuitive, giving orders in the heat of battle, but it as you grow more familiar with the controls, it becomes second nature, and you start taking a back seat in the action. You start dishing out orders and watching your men obey you completely.

Which brings me to my other confession. This is a little more shameful, seeing as how I've been playing video games for years: I can't stand losing lives in video games.

I know that noone particularly likes this. It's a demeaning, yet integral part of videogames. But I can't stand it. If I start getting 'killed' in a game I'm playing, it takes something spectacular in the game to stop me turning it off and never playing it again.

And this is another thing that Star Wars: Republic Commando addresses.

As I said, I loved Full Spectrum Warrior. Mostly because of the forgiving way it dished out death. If one of your men died, you could carry him the rest of the way, to get him patched up at the nearest medical station. Not only did this help appease my particular problem, it also made the game feel more 'real'; rather than presenting you with an overpowering "GAME OVER (ps - you suck)" screen, it let you continue on, slightly weakened. Never leave a man behind - isn't that what all those war films taught us? Republic Commando does something similar. When a comrade dies, you can 'revive' him, providing him with a couple of bars of energy, enough to reach the next medical station. Likewise, when you die yourself, your visor blurs over in a red hue, and you can issue one last order to your men: "Continue fighting, then come revive me", "Revive me now" or something else. I say "Something else" because I really haven't been paying much attention to any option other than "Revive me now".

There are a couple of complaints, of course. A few graphical glitches, for one. Why implement shadows at all, if you're only going to half-implement them? Your men cast shadows, moving platforms do not, making lift sequences slightly alarming. The shortness of the game is another. I've played it for about a weekend-and-a-bit and I'm apparently more than half way through the game already. On games that are dependent on story (Like Resident Evil 4), this is forgivable, but in an action-based FPS, this is just plain lazy.

But then again, as Ico taught us, it's not the quality of the destination, it's the quality of the journey, right?

links →

kaboom! a short film by pes A stop-motion movie made of toys, matches, peanuts and christmas decorations

Phonecam Wishlisting The always-effervescent Merlin Mann comes up with yet another ingenious productivity hack: using your phone's camera to keep a wishlist while on the move

Happy 10th Birthday! →

Yahoo is 10 years old this year, and is celebrating with a Netrospective - 100 moments from the past 10 years on the internet. For shits and giggles, they also put up their front page from 10 years ago. Like everyone else, I'm sure, this is making me feel very, very old. I can remember when I first saw Yahoo like that. And yet, at the same time, it feels like it must have been very, very long ago - surely things weren't that shitty in 1995? Surely we've always had flash and animated gifs, and Jakob Nielsen telling us these things were bad?

But this isn't the only 10-year birthday we've got this year. Public Enemy's 'Fear of a Black Planet' is 10 years old in July. And it still sounds fantastic.

Happy Birthday, Fear of a Black Planet (and Yahoo).

links →

Unhappybirthday.com Did you know the song "Happy Birthday" is copyrighted? Neither did I. At least now you party-poopers have a good excuse not to sing.

Head in Vice Fascinating article about the business end of running Vice Magazine

X vs XP →

As a recent Mac convert, I'd like to throw some google-juice in the direction of X vs. XP, a well-researched and well-presented site comparing OS X and Windows XP. As well as presenting a modestly unbiased opinion, it's also amazing resource for learning about some of the things I've been wrestling with on OS X, such as "how do I tab into drop-down menus?" (impossible to navigate xe.com without this ability).

War of the Worlds

This probably isn't a particularly popular opinion, but I'll state it anyway. I love Spielberg's movies. I think that they've got a wonderful magical quality few directors have managed to recreate (although Shyamalan comes close). And besides, how could I not love the person responsible for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

And so I'm tickled pink by the prospect of his remake of War of the Worlds. If it's even half as good as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I'm still going to be blown away.

But there's so much more going on. Pendragon Pictures have been working on a more faithful, low-budget version of War of the Worlds. They recently made a 'theatrical trailer' available on their website. This is the first time they've revealed any of their effects. And oh.. oh dear. But regardless of the quality of the final picture, it will be a refreshing companion to Spielberg's blockbuster.

But we're so lucky, there's still more. Jeff Wayne is working on a CGI version of his Musical of War of the Worlds, intended for a release in 2007. They recently released some animation tests of this movie - clip one, clip 2. Being a huge fan of the musical and a 3D animation dork, I think this is the version I'm looking to the most.

links →

Resistance is Futile "My little golden book about God", remixed.

A9.com on The O.C. Did amazon pay for the cringe-inducing "A9.com" mention on the O.C.?

Milton Glazer on Design A beautiful short film about the designer of "I love NY"

Paris Hilton's Blackberry hacked, address book posted online Fancy calling Pharrell?

200 worst-reviewed movies on Metacritic It's worrying to think how many of these I've seen. It's terrifying to think how many of these I like.

Action Figures @ Kidrobot.com In my dream house, every inch of space is covered in these

Dead DSL →

Our DSL has been on the fritz since Wednesday. This is probably a good thing, since it's giving me a good reason to ditch our current provider and take advantage of the Smart Telecom Offer of 2MB for EUR35/mon.

Updates will probably be more sporadic than usual until we're back up and running.

The great game-movie divide

I don't know if it was out of morbid curiosity, or if it was simply because the trailer makes it look so cheesy, but I went to see Assault on Precinct 13 over the weekend. At one point during the show, my companion turned to me and said "It's like a cop Counter-Strike!". Which was pretty much spot-on. Games had been feeding off movies for so long that they've gotten pretty good at copying the look and style of exactly this kind of film - the big, raucous, no-brainer, filled-with-explosions kind of film.

When I got home, I came across an article claiming that Uwe Boll was working on a film of Counter-Strike (which later turned out to be false). My brief flash of panic prompted me to check the IMDB to see what movies based on videogames we have to look forward to in the foreseeable future.

The list isn't pretty.

Alone in the Dark (2005)
Bloodrayne (2005)
Crazy Taxi (2005)
Deus Ex (2006)
Doom (2005)
Driver (2006)
Far Cry (2006)
Metroid (2006)
Mortal Kombat: Devastation (2005)
Silent Hill (2006)
Spy Hunter (2005)
Tekken (2006)

As well as this, we have already had the mediocre Resident Evil: Apocapyse and the truly abysmal Alien Versus Predator.

As I said before, games have been copying off Hollywood for years. Some of the first games were based on themes that were very popular around that time. The interstellar dogfighting of Star Wars came to life in Space Invaders. As games got more sophisticated, they began using other, slightly different films for their inspiration. Games such as Rolling Thunder imitated the spy movies of James Bond. Chase HQ came along roughly around the time cop "buddy" action-thrillers came into vogue. For a while, the videogame tie-in -- invariably a platform/shooter-by-the-numbers -- was an inevitable part of every movie's marketing strategy.

But now things are different. It seems that now games are getting their movie tie-in. If we compare the business done by both the film and videogame versions of "Chronicles of Riddick", it's hard to see which was the main feature and which was the tie-in (although, if were to use 'critical acclaim' as our metric, there would be a clear winner).

Some of these are absolutely dreadful ideas for movies, and really make me worry. Crazy Taxi? Doom? Driver? Tekken? But Deus Ex and Silent Hill on that list give me hope. And this Hope is further strengthened by the fact that Rogery Avery is set to direct Silent Hill. I've been saying for the longest time that I've been waiting for a movie to deliver the same kind of visceral scares provided by Silent Hill.

For the most part, there's a hidden 'sophistication ratio' when we look at games to movies. It goes like this: sophistication of the movie: sophistication of game = a constant This used to say that the more sophisticated a movie is, the more unsophisticated the game would be. Take, for example, the Mario Brothers movie - an extremely unsophisticated idea which the filmmakers ruined by trying to make it something it's not: sophisticated. But with this shift toward games being the dominant media, we're seeing that these very sophisticated games (Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil) are given extremely crude and unsophisticated movies.

Having said all this, things are looking up, at least in the short term. I could probably sleep a whole lot better if I knew that Paul W. S. Anderson and Ube Boll had given up directing altogether, but until that day comes, I'll take a lot of comfort in knowing that games have become so sophisticated and compelling that they're beginning to surpass movies in the stories that they tell and the way in which they tell them.