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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Alone in the Dark (2005)
Crazy Taxi (2005)
Deus Ex (2006)
Far Cry (2006)
Mortal Kombat: Devastation (2005)
Silent Hill (2006)
Spy Hunter (2005)
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.
After sitting in my del.icio.us inbox for a couple of weeks, I finally found the time to start playing about with Ruby on Rails. I've heard a lot of good things about Rails-based applications, and I've started using them heavily (notable del.icio.us and 43 things). However, the real reason I wanted to check out Rails was so I could understand But She's A Girl's Tracks.
I first gave Tracks a go a couple of weeks ago, but found that it was missing too many things that I rely on from a task-list planner, such as an ability to view completed tasks on a day-to-day basis (essential for my morning meetings) and the ability to output the task list as an iCal feed (I use iCal to sync with my phone, which doubles as my PDA). I took a look at the source for Tracks, but having absolutely no knowledge of Ruby whatsoever, I couldn't really understand it (Where on earth is this being called from? Are all these files really necessary?), so immediately set about re-implementing it in PHP, the language I'm more familiar with. I got bored with that project after a couple of hours.
After reading the excellent O'Reilly article (and David Allen's superb "Getting Things Done", whose methods Tracks seeks to enhance), I decided it was time to revisit the source of Tracks. Now it makes much more sense, and I've already hacked together the "report view" that I needed, and I'm working on the iCal exporter as we speak.
There wasn't one thing mentioned at Macworld that wasn't already revealed on the internet already. By way of 'punishment', Apple decided not to show the webcast live, but rather only offer it after a couple of hours. This is completely understandable, since there were a couple of major announcements which had been completely ruined by over-zealous fans who have now crossed the line into breaking the law to find out what the announcements would be ahead of time.
Having watched the Macworld speech, I'm fully convinced that Apple are one of the few technology companies in the world that "get it". I remember someone describing Tim O'Reilly as a visionary, because since it takes 18 months to write and publish a book, he has to be constantly thinking "What will people want to read about in 18 months time?". I think the same could be said of Apple - they are thinking ahead of time, to think "What will people want to be doing with their computers in 18 months?" rather than reacting to current fads.
Introducing the Mac Mini
I've taken to using our G4 in work as my main workstation. Initially, I just wanted it because it looked neat and would finally make my desktop look classy. But recently, I've fallen in love with the power and the flexibility it provides. To make matters worse for my bank account, I've started toying with the idea of buying myself a Mac for home.
Previously, the two offerings I could afford (eMac and iMac) have been, well, slightly out of my taste range. The previous generation of the iMac was beautiful, and I would gladly have bought one of those, but the current version hasn't blown me away.
I don't think that my situation is that uncommon. Which is why the Mac Mini is the smartest move I've ever seen Apple make.
The Mac Mini retails for EUR519 (but you can get it for EUR378 if you know someone who works for Apple who will help you out with their massive 27% discount). Let's just think about this for a second: EUR519 for a powerful, small, quiet computer? Before Christmas, I paid over that for an iPod and iSkin for my girlfriend. An iPod with the exact same amount of storage! This alone is an amazing feat, but there's more.
##Beauty is not caused. It is.
No other technology makes people coo quite like Apple products. And not just engineers or techies either - ordinary people. My mom took a look at an iPod and understood the intrinsic value of the design that went into it. If my mom can appreciate the design and craftsmanship, that they can work so hard to create something that looks so simple, then you know they've won out.
And there's not a single person I've spoken to that hasn't been absolutely bowled over by the Mac Mini.
First, there's the size of the thing. I think Apple invented a new size rating: "Bewilderingly tiny". Add to this Apple's traditional clean lines and uncluttered interface, and you've got something to leave people impressed and design aficionados breathless.
Add to this the power of that little box - more powerful than my main workstation, a silver G4.
But the really amazing part is the versatility. At that kind of price range, it's become less a case of "Can I really justify buying a Mac" to "Where in my life could I use this Mac I just bought?"
A Mac for the Living Room, a Mac for the kitchen...
Personally speaking, I'm most interested in using the Mac Mini in the Living Room - as a Home Entertainment Centre, and -- providing I can find the right kind of Firewire/USB TV-in card -- PVR. And I find it hard to believe that Apple didn't have this use specifically in mind for the Mac Mini. The size comparisons are right: roughly around the same height as a video or DVD player.
I had been thinking about doing something similar with my XBox, chipping it to allow it to run one of the many homebrew Media Centre solutions, which would allow it to play DVDs of any region, DivXs, all my MP3s and so on. My main reluctance to this comes because of two important factors:
I have real trouble with the idea of an XBox as anything other than a "games station"
As much as Sony and Microsoft try to reposition their products as the all-in-one home entertainment solution, I have real trouble accepting this. The idea of navigating my files with a controller seems completely alien to me. This probably reveals more of my rapidly-oncoming middle-age than I'd like.
The XBox is too damn noisy for anything other than playing games
Enter the Mac Mini.
It's small, "Whisper quiet" and doesn't look out of place beside my video and DVD player, and offers an array of features unmatched by any of the other offerings.
Okay, so maybe I was a tad harsh in my dismissal of the Nintendo DS. Both have been launched recently and of the two, the DS appears to be doing better. There are a couple of factors relating to this.
First is that Sony have only launched the DS in Japan while Nintendo have launched in Japan and the US. When Nintendo started selling their DS in Japan, Sony -- bold as you like -- teased gamers by taking over Subway stations and having functioning PSPs presented behind reinforced plastic with armed guards. When Nintendo furiously churned out DSes for sale in the US, Sony sat on their Laurels and insisted that they were manufacturing 500,000 units, no more, no less. This number barely managed to cover all of the internet pre-orders, with retail units barely getting a slice of the action.
Then of course, you have the battle of the launch titles. In this case, Nintendo have Sony licked. They launched with an update of their most successful and most celebrated titles to date, Mario 64, as well as numerous other first-party titles. To further pile on the pressure, they even resorted to giving out a "demo cartridge" of what was coming with the new Metroid Prime (which immediatley conjured memories of the Kenner Star Wars "Early Bird" certificate). Sony could merely present people with a handful of games.
Finally, there are the other factors, such as the much-reported battery status of the PSP. Apparently, despite all best promises, the PSP can still only manage roughly 45 minutes of battery power when playing Ridge Racers, whereas Nintendo with its years of experience of creating handheld gaming hardware, can squeeze something ridiculous out of the DS.
Any or all of these could lead to keeping people away from the PSP.
I recently had the opportunity to play with a DS brought back from the US. I had a mixed bag of first impressions. First was the aesthetics of the thing -- it's big, and ugly. And I mean really big and really ugly. Close enough to two Gameboy Advances sellotaped together to make me want to open it quickly to find something to like. Opening it up, it feels plasticky, but the interface is nice. Starting up Metroid, I got to see what the touchscreen was all about. It works well in Metroid. It feels natural to move your thumb to the place you want to look. It also makes for some logical, intuitive menu options.
But I really wanted to try out Mario 64 in it.
Let me just say this... I play a lot of videogames. Right now, I'm switching between four different games. In spite of this, or rather because of this, I rarely finish games. I finished Mario 64, and it remains the largest game I've ever finished. This is because, more than any other game, Mario 64 was able to hold my attention for all the time it took for me to want to finish it. So the DS's Mario 64 had a lot to live up to.
It's playful and interesting to use the touchscreen to control it, but ultimately frustrating. I immediately went swimming and found that this wasn't as obvious or as well-thought-out as the N64 version. Controlling Mario in general had an air of concentration about it, whereas with the N64 controller, it was something that came naturally. I didn't play much of Mario 64, but from what I saw, it seemed more frustrating than I would have liked.
It might seem like I'm still bad-mouthing the DS, and I'm sorry if it comes across that way. There's a lot to like about the DS, and most impressively, the forthcoming titles look fun. Who couldn't love a game where you have to shout "I LOVE YOU" as loud as you can to win the level? (The microphone is another feature I'm sure many games developers will have a lot of fun developing with). I'll buy one, because they're cheap and I have a special place in my heart for Nintendo games. I'll wait until its European release in March 2005.
Note: This was originally posted in my Livejournal, but should probably appear here as well
A lot has been said about the new Sony PSP since the launch was announced yesterday. So I thought I'd throw my own hat into the ring here.
I'm thrilled to hear the final launch specs of the PSP. Sony have been pushing grown-up gaming since they entered the videogame market with the PlayStation. And they seem to have a firm understanding of what adults want from videogames. Compare this to Nintendo, whose new DS reeks of "Well, uh.. we've got a successful platform in the Gameboy Advance.. let's add another screen! And make it a touch screen! Who wouldn't want one of them? And uh.. uh.. ah, we'll just figure it out as we go along". [In fact, it would seem this feature was added purely to give Nintendo something to use as the cornerstone of their new 'adult' marketing campaign - "touchingisgood" (which, quite frankly, is a little embarassing)].
The PSP is an incredibly pretty piece of consumer technology. It's small, has sleek lines and stands out from all other handhelds on the market (although sometimes smacks of the Atari Lynx, depending on the light). Sony demonstrated the kind of peerage they're placing the PSP with in their decision to provide white headphones with the PSP.
The PSP will be able to play games, music, and videos, as well as connect to wireless networks (whether you'll be able to browse the internet or collect email from it remains to be seen). On the music side, they had originally planned not to support .mp3 in favour of their own proprietary ATRAC3 format, but finally gave in to consumer pressure.
Sony aren't taking any chances and have encouraged developers to port their biggest-selling Playstation games to the PSP. Within the first year, we will have titles from the following series on the PSP:
Metal Gear Solid
Tony Hawk Underground 2
Each of these will be of a quality roughly equivalent to their PS2 counterparts.
On a personal level, I'm looking forward to the PSP for two reasons.
First is the wireless connectivity. There was some debate as to whether or not this would make it into the final specs of the machine, and I'm glad to see it has. This means that content can be downloaded directly to the machine, as we're beginning to see with XBox Live. It also provides the means for true opportunistic gaming. For example, say I'm playing with a PSP on a bus, and I see that someone else is also playing with a PSP, we can instantly join our games and play against each other. A beautifully simple idea that, if you'll excuse the gushing hyperbole, could revolutionise the way the general public views multi-player games*.
The second reason I'm looking forward to the PSP stems from my sense of self-preservation. I live in a house of non-gamers who, I feel, sometimes resent my occasional gaming and accompanying misappropriation of the TV. There was once a threat that my XBox could go out the window if I didn't turn it off. A PSP could be the answer to this, or at least a happy medium - a non-intrusive way for me to play games without having to lock myself away in my room.
Right now, the Japanese launch price is 20,790 yen (approximately EUR150). MCV are reporting that the European launch price could be around the EUR300 mark.
Yes, I know the n-gage already has wireless gaming just like the PSP is proposing, but I have yet to meet one person who will even admit to wanting an n-gage, let alone meet someone who actually owns one. Compare this to everyone I've spoken to saying how they're lusting after a PSP
Yesterday, my housemate was on Newstalk 106, a national radio station, to talk about Ladyfest Dublin, which she's involved in. Being the naive-yet-helpful type, I offered to record this for her and mp3 it, so Ladyfest could offer it as a download on their website. In the process of doing this, I downloaded 16 different pieces of software, most of which were completely useless for the job I was trying to do. That's why I've written this, to help anyone else trying to do something similar.
By the way, if anyone has a simpler way, please let me know.
Once bitten, twice shy
My previous experience of mp3'ing a radio show involved recording it to tape (yes, I still use tapes), connecting from the headphone jack on my stereo to the 'line in' jack on my laptop, and recording that. Unfortunately, this resulted in a really crackly mp3, full of static. So I figured, this is the 21st Century, there has to be an easier way to do this.
And being cheap, the easier way had better be free.
A thoroughly modern, convoluted solution
Newstalk offer a Windows Media stream of their live broadcasts. I used the shareware Net Transport to record the stream. I believe the shareware version will only record 15 minutes of a stream, but I didn't check this out. Once it had recorded the stream, I exported it as a 2.14MB .asf file.
Next, I used asftools to create a .wav of the stream. However, the .wav it created was only 2.12MB, while the actual recording was approximately 14 minutes long. Clearly asftools uses some weird codec that, despite downloading 20MBs of codec packs, I just couldn't find. Their website wasn't much help either. It addressed the problems with the .wav files asftools creates, but suggests it's "a codec problem". So I'd have to find something else.
After searching for a good hour or so, I finally stumbled across [http://www.dbpoweramp.com/](DB Power Amp Music Converter). This was able to read the busted wav, and export it as whatever I liked; a .wav or a .mp3. I was finally getting somewhere. Since I still had some editing to do on the source before I put it up as an mp3, I exported it as a "proper", 145MB .wav.
I opened the .wav file in audacity and from there, was able to trim off the useless bit I'd recorded at the beginning. I also added a nice little fade-out, for good measure. Audacity was able to export this as either a .ogg or a .mp3 file. As much as my nerd side wanted to put this out as a .ogg file, my sensible side told me that we were going for as much cross-compatibility as possible, so I exported it as a 12MB .mp3 file.