I'm almost finished moving to my new apartment. It's not quite time to crack open a beer and relax, but almost. In the meantime, I've taken my pastimes out of their temporary hiatus and once again started playing games (the beautiful, memorable Cruise for a Corpse via the wonders of Dosbox) and reading (Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You). Although I'll probably end up writing something about Cruise for a Corpse later, I've got a couple of things I'd like to say about Everything Bad is Good for You.
The last book I read before the move was Kevin Lynch's Image of the City, a book about the theory of town planning. Most of that book is spent teaching us new ways to look at cities and helping us develop a new vocabulary for describing cities and town planning - most memorably, it introduces the idea of a city's imageability. Dan Hill took this concept and applied it to videogames in his amazing essay Los Angeles: Grand Theft Reality - I would encourage everyone to read this, regardless of whether or not you are interested in videogames.
Stephen Johnson does something similar in Everything Bad is Good for You (EBIGFY). Like Lynch, Johnson also tries to teach us to look at videogames in a new way and give us the vocabulary to describe video game concepts. Johnson accurately and eloquently sums up the positive aspects of videogames beyond the oft-repeated "improves hand/eye co-ordination" nonsense, such as teaching us the art of making sense of chaos in order to achieve a game's objectives (he calls this practice "telescoping"). He also describes, on a physiological level, why we enjoy playing games in spite of the fact that they tend to frustrate us for 90% of the time.
Although his section on videogames is barely 35 pages long, it provides a more succinct and lucid essay about the merits of video games than I've yet seen from actual videogamecommentators.
My girlfriend and I have been apartment-hunting for the past couple of weeks. We saw a fantastic apartment yesterday up in Stoneybatter that ticked all of our boxes (and a few we didn't even know we had, like a Smeg fridge). Possibly the only thing I didn't like about the apartment was the lack of a phone line.
We just got word today that the landlord is offering the apartment to us. Hooray! There's a two-week overlap between our current place and the new place, so this gives us plenty of time to move our stuff up there and get everything ready. Since my girlfriend and I are both nerds, I figure it might be a clever idea to use these two weeks to arrange for some form of internet connection to be installed.
I was thinking of checking out Irish Broadband first, because it elimates the need for a phone line. But does anyone know what IBB's service is like? Any horror stories?
When we moved into our current place, I asking IBB if they could provide service for us. The guy actually laughed down the phone as he gleefully told us "We're not taking any more customers on that node! We've got enough! haha!" So, if IBB isn't a goer, we'll just have to bite the bullet; get a new phone line installed and go with one of the 'traditional' providers. Any recommendations? Smart? Esat?
There is something intrinsically fun about playing with your food. Children understand this. And we tell them not to do it because.. well.. we were taught not to do it and, goddammit, if we can't do it, we won't let anyone else do it either. So there.
This is why I love meal-making with mince. Making mince mushy. Alliteration aside, when I'm preparing a meal out of paste that was once recognisable as meat, I'm instantly transported back to my youth: I'm 5 years old again, creating a mess with mala. Except my meat creations taste marginally better than my mala ones.
I've made a couple of batches of meatballs now, but the ones I made during the week were the first ones where the ingredients felt right. And best of all, it was thrown together in less than a half an hour when I got home late and wasn't really in the mood for anything too complicated.
450g pork mince
kielbasa sausage (or any smoked/spicy meat)
half an onion
1 teaspoon tabasco sauce
salt & pepper
Chop the onion really, really, really fine. It doesn't have to be evenly chopped, a few larger bits here and there add to the texture. But it still needs to be thin.
Similarly, chop the sausage into really, really, really small cubes. As small as you can. A good handful should do you.
Crush the garlic with the side of your knife and then chop it fine.
Throw the onion, sausage and garlic into a bowl with the pork mince along with two teaspons of the wholegrain mustard and about a teaspoon of the tabasco sauce.
Roll the lime leaves in your fingers to crush it, then chop it to make sure it's extra-fine and add it to the bowl. Season the mix generously.
Now the fun part - mush the whole thing around until you get a consistent paste. All the ingredients should be roughly spread throughout the entire thing. Roll the whole thing up into little balls. There's no rule as to the size of these, but I've found that they should fit in the palm of my hand, not on the palm of my hand. Does this make sense? Bear in mind, the size of the balls will affect the cooking time.
Pour a good amount of oil (olive oil won't splash, vegetable oil will) into a decent non-stick pan and get it good and hot. When it's ready, start adding the meatballs. You'll never have a completely round ball, so I've found it's best to cook these on one side, until they're on the point of burning, then flip them onto another side. When they're a dark brown on most sides, you can start turning them more regularly, to cook the inside.
Serve in some noodles with some chicken stock (Knorr do my favourite store-bought chicken stock right now).
This is still very much beta - use at your own risk
Today, I set about teaching myself the basics of web scraping, with the intention of putting it to some good use. Coincidence or providence, I read Kottke's post about creating an ical for summer movie releases, and immediately thought of a personal itch I could scratch.
The Irish Film and Television Network provide a list of Irish Theatrical Releases, but this is just one big flat HTML file that is only marginally helpful. It still relies on me to remember to go to their page and see what's out and when. It would be much more useful if this information was somewhere I tend to spend a lot of my day looking - say, my calendar program - and even more helpful if it was somewhere I could carry it around with me - say, my phone.
Well, now I can. Using various combinations of bash, sgrep, awk and sed, I created a script that will automatically grab the 'releases' page of IFTN.ie and export it as an .ics file, which can be read through iCal/Sunbird, and from there, synched to my phone.
IFTN's listing page is braindead. I can't help this, and my script can't predict its unusual behaviour. For example, why does it have two release dates for "Kicking and Screaming", one on June 3rd, the second on July 29th? And why does it randomly have two "2005"s after "Fever Pitch"?
This is my first real time creating a .ics file. I ploughed through RFC 2445 for pointers, but I might have commited some mortal vcalendar sin without knowing it.
Tim O'Reilly suggests that at least part of the reason for Amazon and Google's success comes from their open API. This allows people to access their information in ways that fit people's individual needs ("rip, mix, burn"), giving them a massive advantage over monolithic proprietary apps. He gives the example of their own use in O'Reilly - they monitor the 'technology' section of Amazon's books for how well their books are doing, their prices vs. their competitor's prices, what new books have been released and so on. With Google, we're seeing this as it happens as people continue to extend maps.google.com to tie in with other services, such as Flickr, producing Geotagging.
Well, the BBC must have been listening. Yesterday, they launched BBC Backstage, which is set to provide a one-stop-shop for all of the BBC's web content, from their RSS feeds to their Search API (not available yet). Most interestingly for the casual user (read: non-developer), they're also using this as a way to track the ways in which people are using the BBC website, such as providing a way for people to provide their own "external links" for stories, or giving stories del.icio.us-style tags.
I look forward to seeing what sorts of things people come up with.
There are, perhaps, a handful of 'hard' science fiction movies in the world. By this, I mean movies whose primary goal is to challenge the viewer rather than to entertain. Movies like Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and Tarkovsky's "Stalker" ask more questions than they answer, and this is part of their appeal. Strange, then, that one of the finest examples of a 'hard' science fiction movie should come from the same man who defined the family-friendly summer sci-fi blockbuster extravaganza - George Lucas.
The history of THX-1138 is a fascinating one, but one which I'm not going to go into detail about here (for a concise history, check out the THX-1138 DVD or Peter Biskind's "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls"). But a quick summary: THX-1138 started life as a studen film, becomes the first finished piece of Francis Ford Coppola's "American Zoetrope" hippy commune/production company - other films on their "to do" list included "The Conversation" and "Apocalypse Now". Warners, the distributors took a look at it and balked, yanking all of American Zoetrope's funding, re-editing THX-1138 to make it more audience-friendly ("Put the freaks up front" was their suggestion for improving this movie). Lucas bought the rights back and re-released it the way he wanted it.
I first saw THX-1138 when I was a teenager on a dodgy VHS copy that got passed around my nerd friends like a holy relic. And to be honest, I didn't know what to make of it. I could understand the dystopian themes, but couldn't understand why there wasn't an actual story - where was the needless exposition? The convenient explanations for viewers? To tell the truth, I wasn't all that impressed. Things like "Brazil" and, of course, "Nineteen Eighty-Four", were much much more my cup of tea. Dystopian world-views with bleak endings. THX-1138's ending was so vague as to be unintelligible.
So I completely forgot about THX-1138, except for spotting the references in other Lucas movies. To me, the film itself was more a curio for fans of Star Wars than an enjoyable movie in its own right.
When it was released on DVD last year, I decided to check it out again. This time, it was the version Lucas originally wanted to see, and more. Lucas, master of revisionism, had decided to add more bits to this movie. After killing a lot of what made Star Wars enjoyable, I wasn't hopeful. But still, one Saturday morning, I decided to watch it.
And it started to make sense.
First of all, 99% of Lucas' digital additions are worthwhile. They serve to enhance the movie, flawlessly working their way into the background, where you barely notice them, but help give the entire film a greater sense of scale. The major changes, for the most part, also work well. For example, they turn the completely underwhelming "corridor of people" into a truly terrifying "tsunami of people". So, in terms of not completely ruining the film with his boner for extraneous CGI, I think Lucas deserves a little respect.
But as well as these cosmetic changes to the movie, something changed within me. I finally 'got' the movie. I remember a similar experience with '2001'; years of seeing it and thinking "What's all the fuss about?" finally gave way to "Holy shit! This is amazing!" I could finally look at THX-1138 and see exactly why there's no actual story. Why there is no needless exposition. I'm completely enamoured with this film. I love the look of the movie, the style of the movie. The sound design is incredible and unrelenting.
And now, the ending makes perfect sense to me. And it's easily as sinister and bleak as Brazil or Nineteen Eighty-Four. Perhaps more so: he finally does escape, but to what?
It seems that THX-1138 will never really get out of Star Wars' enormous shadow but for me, I'm glad I finally found that it is an enjoyable movie in its own right.
Cleaning out some old books, I came across something I'd completely forgotten I'd bought. "Manners for Men" by Mrs. Humphry, published 1897.
From the chapter "In the Street":
In meeting acquaintences a nod is sufficient for a male friend, unless his age or position is such as to render it advisable to raise the hat. Should a lady be with the acquaintance, any man meeting them must raise his hat. So must the individual walking with the lady. The etiquette of bowing is a simple one. Male acquaintances always wait for acknowledgement on the part of the female, as well as from those men who are their superiors in age or position. But this does not mean that they are shyly to look away from them and to ignore them. On the contrary, they must show clearly by their manner that they are on the look-out for some sign of recognition and are ready to reply to it. Shyness often interferes with this and makes a young man look away, and this is occasionally misconstrued as indifference and resented as such. The calm, quiet, collected expression of face that suits the occasion is not achieved at once. Sometimes the over-anxiety to make a good impression defeats itself, producing a blushing eagerness better suited to a girlish than a manly countenance. This, however, is a youthful fault that is not without its ingratiating side, though young men view it in themselves and each other with unbounded scorn. This sentiment of self-contempt is a frequent one in young people of both sexes. Their valuation of themselves varies as much as the barometer and is as much affected by outward causes. After a "snub", real or fancied, it goes down to zero, but as a rule it speedily recovers itself and in most young men enjoys an agreeable thermometer of 85° or so in the shade!
The Digital Hub is once again throwing an elaborate, extravagant exhibition, and once again, they're focusing on video games. Ordinarily, the Digital Hub's exhibitions are of little interest to me. They remind me of the time during the the dot-com boom when the company I worked for threw large cocktail parties every week, inviting all their friends around to come and get drunk for free. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves as much as they can without drawing attention to the fact that the emperor is stark bollock naked.
However, their talk about censorship caught my eye for a number of reasons, not least of which the fact that I was invited along by one of the panelists. The first, and hopefully last time I'll ever be on an email distribution list with Ryan Tubridy.
The talk was actually quite interesting, in spite of the fact that not a whole lot was actually said. Well, there were a lot of words thrown about, but not a lot of points were actually made. This is especially true of the speaker from Trinity College who spoke for ten minutes without saying anything that hadn't already been said. There was a lot of roundabout talk about self-regulation and the importance of classification, but one of the key issues -- the one of "what have we got to protect the children from" -- seemed to get lost in the discussion.
Most astounding were the comparisons being made. Karlin Lillington, a fairly tech-savvy young lady, made the comparison between parents letting kids play violent video games and parents letting kids drink alcohol. Likewise, someone else made a comparison to physical/sexual abuse of children.
I mean, let's not get carried away here, guys.
Although, in the case of alcohol, it seems like an obvious link (giving children access to something they're not supposed to have), neither of these comparisons hold up to any kind of critical thinking, and only serve to further confuse an already-complicated and emotionally charged issue.
Another thing that came up was America's Army, one of the most-quoted examples of the dangers of videogames because of its primary use as a 'recruiting tool' for the U.S. Army. Although it certainly is a recruiting tool, it is not used to help show people how much fun it is to kill things in the army - if you weren't already inclined towards joining the army, this game would most certainly not persuade you. Instead, the U.S. Army hope that people who are already predisposed towards this kind of behaviour will play the game, and when they finally do sign up, the recruitment office can instantly call up the player's stats, to see how well their potential recruit did.
Towards the end, I think everyone was in agreement that censorship was the wrong way to approach this issue, and that classification and education were the way to go. A particularly funny moment came when one of the organisers found out that GTA gives you the ability to have sex with prostitutes, then beat them up and get your money back. "My teenage boys play that game, and I never knew about that." Cue many sheepish looks when it was pointed out that this game was rated "18", and her boys shouldn't have been playing it in the first place. But how does one classify a game like Spore, for example, which is so completely open-ended that virtually anything is possible?
The debate about regulation raised an interesting question, and one that I'll be thinking about for quite a while... how exactly does one educate parents? Point of sale education isn't good enough. Part of the problem comes from the perception that "games" are the same as "toys" and, as such, all acceptable for kids. How do we convince parents that there are games made explicitly for adults?
Since we've got broadband again, I'm finally getting to play with all the nifty things I'd had ideas about, but no way of executing. The first of these is a local Instiki server at home.
I use this all the time in work for note keeping and simple project management. At home, I'm finding a hundred different ways to use it.
Like keeping track of recipes.
I like to try out a whole bunch of different recipes. Nothing too fancy - I don't make my own chicken stock or anything like that - but I do try to go beyond the simple food strategy of meat-and-a-tin-of-sauce. This doesn't always go to plan. The most recent food-related disaster was my attempt at making a chicken maryland, which turned out squishy and odd-tasting. Live and learn.
Using instiki, I threw together a 'web' called "FoodWeLike", where I'm keeping track of the ingredients of the recipes that work for us, as well as simple cooking instructions. This is mainly useful because we have a central repository of ingredients and recipes (instead of trying to remember which cookery book had what), but any web server (or file server) could do this. Instikis is particularly useful because as well as a way to easily edit these, it gives us the ability to easily categorise the recipes any way we like - for example, "We really like", "We occasionally like", and "We don't like". We're also able to organise these into weekly meal plans. And, most usefully, plan our weekly shopping run using a page called "ShoppingList" where we can just paste the ingredients from other pages, or update as we run out of something.
And this is just one a hundred ways Instiki is useful in a domestic environment. Well, our domestic environment.
(By the way, I know this could probably be achieved using any wiki software, but I'm specifically choosing Instiki because of its simplicity of installation and also because, right now, I have a major boner for apps built with Ruby on Rails)
I'm putting it down to a momentary lapse in concentration.
Esat told us our line went 'live' on Friday, so I spent a while trying to remember what my username and password was. I must have spent a good half hour trying various combinations (It turns out the username goes in the form of $username@iolbb, not @iolbb.ie as the salesman told me).
So when I finally did get the right combination, I was so thrilled at having broadband at home again that I left the laptop for a few minutes to go bop around the room. I must have bopped for less than 10 minutes before I realised I'd left a Windows machine connected directly to the internet.
And so, my first few hours of broadband are being spent de-fucking my laptop. It must have five different types of spyware on there, and no one tool is catching it all. Although, loathe as I am to admit it, Microsoft's Antispyware has, so far, been the best, having already caught four things. There are still a couple of other things left on there, if I'm reading windump and 'netstat -ao' right.