Ken and I leave today for France. We're spending the weekend in chilly Paris, then two weeks in Aix-en-Provence for French lessons, then four weeks back in Paris, returning to San Francisco on May 15. We're really looking forward to it, although right now what I really want is the end of the massive anxiety I always feel when preparing for a big trip! I don't know that I'll be online or active much for the next couple of weeks but life should return to normal once I'm in Paris on April 14.
  2007-03-29 16:09 Z
Here's a simple formula for engaging games: existing game + RPG. Mario Golf's core game is boring computer golf: choose a club, aim a stroke. press the button. But wrapped around that is an RPG. There's a world to explore, a character to level up, little quests. The core game is fun but shallow; the RPG gives it depth. This same mechanic works with the Tiger Woods golf series, action games like SSX and Tony Hawk skating, etc. There's even an MMOG version of this, the awesome Puzzle Pirates.

The latest stealth hit game to do this is Puzzle Quest. The core game is the match-three game Bejeweled. But wrapped around it is a high fantasy world of quests, monsters, character levelling, etc.

I've only played the PC demo, but it's clear the RPG elements add a lot of depth. Clearing rows of gems from the board gives you "mana" in one of four colours. Your character specializes in certain colours. You also specialize in certain special moves that manipulate the board in different way. As you specialize more in the RPG, the way you play the puzzle changes.

The game has pretty good reviews, although it looks like the PSP and NDS implementations are a bit weak. It's also getting a lot of buzz. Apparently no one thought it would sell well because it's pretty hard to find in stores. Amazon lists a 2-3 day delay on the order. In the meantime, try the PC demo.

  2007-03-28 16:51 Z
I have a love/hate thing for real time strategy games. I love the economics, the fast paced gameplay, and watching my little army men go rampaging. But they require stressful micromanagement, so I never play one for long. My favourite of all time is Rise of Nations.

Supreme Commander is the new big RTS release. It's the successor to Total Annihilation, the 1997 RTS that still has a rabid fan following for its simplicity and modability. I didn't play too much TA, but it looks like SupCom is the same game in every way, just new.

What sets SupCom apart from other RTS games is the economic model. There are a few resources on the map but mostly you build your economy up via buildings and units you can place anywhere. Your economy is all about flow; not "I've accumulated six zillion dollars and I'm going to build a giant army now" but rather "I'm making a hundred dollars a minute and can build 4 giant robots a minute". I don't know the economic model is really that different from other RTS, but it plays better.

The best part of SupCom is the beautifully animated units of multiple scales. It's great fun to watch your spiderbots, mobile artillery, and giant mechasuit guys slug it out. But you tend to spend most of your time zoomed all the way out where the units are reduced to 3x3 icons. But zooming in, there's some fun stuff happening.

It's a good game and I'm already getting a bit tired of it, as with all RTS I play. Part of the problem is that the game is very demanding on computer resources and has a horribly buggy sound system that breaks half the time. That part's not so fun. But the giant robots are awesome. If you want to read more about the game, try this excellent fan blog.

  2007-03-26 15:24 Z
The older I get the more I understand that many people are terribly lonely.
  2007-03-22 19:05 Z
I'm a big fan of the San Francisco burrito, and none is consistently better than those served by Taqueria Can-Cún. The tortillas they use are amazing, flaky and crispy and grilled instead of steamed. And the super burritos have the most delicious avocados ever. Truly the best of a demanding kind of fast food.
  2007-03-21 20:15 Z
rrdtool is an amazing little tool for storing and graphing time series data, but it's very idiosyncratic and awkward to use. The commands are confusing and there's a lot of mystery to the output.

If you run rrdtool graph to produce a graph, and it outputs the cryptic string 0x0, what that means is you forgot to give a command like LINE2 or AREA to actually draw a graph. Normally it prints out a string like 481x154 to tell you the size of the image it drew; 0x0 means it didn't draw an image at all.

  2007-03-20 21:11 Z
I've been a long-time fan of Slim Devices' MP3 hardware, the SqueezeBox. $300 for a little box with network in, audio out. I've used one for years to play my MP3 collection on my kitchen stereo.

I recently updated everything and learned that Slim Devices has greatly expanded their network capability. The player has morphed from something that just plays your MP3s to something that streams audio off the Internet. I'm now able to easily listen to Live365 radio (hello, SomaFM!), Shoutcast stations, my Sirius radio subscription. With the new SqueezeNetwork setup you don't even need to run a server in your house; your player can connect directly over the Internet to public streams. There's some sort of iTunes integration, too.

The coolest thing I've found so far is the Public Radio Fan Browser, a user supplied addon that uses the program listings at to find me an audio stream playing a public radio program I want to listen to, right now. Terry Gross, any time of day! Hey, Ira Glass, entertain me while I'm mixing cocktails! Or is it bedtime and you can't go to sleep? Just tune in Prairie Home Companion! All so easy.

And just to go full circle, there's even a Java app that emulates the hardware on your desktop PC. Seems odd, but it means Ken and I can listen to my music the same way on my home stereo or my PC. It's great.

  2007-03-17 23:25 Z
Haven't had you fill of semantic web nonsense recently? Then enjoy reading A Smarter Web, Technology Review's love letter to information processing pipe dreams. Some quotes for you, taken from the article:
It hasn't helped that until very recently, much of the work on the Semantic Web has been hidden inside big companies or research institutions, with few applications emerging. ...

RDF allowed developers to write software without worrying about widely varying content-use restrictions or national regulations, all of which could be accommodated afterwards using RDF's Semantic Web linkages. ...

The effort to build the Semantic Web has been well publicized, and Berners-Lee's name in particular has lent its success an air of near-inevitability. But its visibility has also made it the target of frequent, and often harsh, criticism. ...

Harsh criticism? Yes. But frequent? Maybe there'd be frequent criticism if there actually were any semantic web systems doing anything that mattered.
  2007-03-17 20:29 Z
If you subscribe to my blog in a feed reader I recommend you switch to my new Atom feed. I've been publishing a hacky old RSS 0.91 feed for years, but Atom's better in every way. Big advantage to you, the reader: if I make a minor update to a post you won't see it as a new post. No rush, I'll keep the old RSS feed working for awhile still.

It's ironic how long it took me to publish an Atom feed. I was at the first shadowy cabal meetings that led to the Atom spec, I wrote an early Atom feed for Blosxom, and I've long advocated using Atom over RSS. But Atom's a fairly complicated format and I wanted to get it right, so I never did it. RSS is ugly, but that can be liberating.

Many thanks to Aristotle for the kick in the pants to get this done. He pointed me to Sam Pearson's implementation of Atom for Blosxom, which works great.

  2007-03-13 21:45 Z
The Apple Airport Extreme N is bad hardware. It doesn't implement basic protocols correctly, it's overpriced, and its wireless is incompatible with a lot of hardware. Avoid.

I've been looking for a decent home wireless router: the Linksys, Belkin, Netgear, and Buffalo routers all seem to last about six months before flaking out. But at least they mostly work when they do. The Apple router is broken by design. Some flaws:

  • The wireless doesn't connect to the Nintendo DS, my Squeezebox, or the Xbox 360.
  • The WEP implementation doesn't do standard WEP keys. Yes, WEP is not good, but there's a lot of hardware that still doesn't support WPA. (Like the Nintendo DS and my Squeezebox).
  • It has no Web interface for configuration, only some funky special utility that has a horrible Windows UI.
  • Every time you make any tiny configuration change it reboots the router and drops all your connections.
  • It doesn't support UPnP, requiring manual port forwarding for many applications.
  • There are only three ethernet ports on the back.
There are some nice things about it. The wireless radio seems to work well for the one device I can manage to connect to it. The hard drive and printer support is nifty. It's shiny white lickable. Too bad the basic stuff doesn't work.

I'm told the router works great if you have an all Apple network. But the funny thing about network hardware is it talks to lots of different devices. Apparently Apple didn't care to test or support compatibility for them. So I'm back to the crappy Buffalo router; this one's flaw is that the wireless fails about twice a day. But at least it does basic protocols correctly. WTB: decent router.

  2007-03-13 18:45 Z
Last weekend's Daylight Savings fire drill is a good occasion to remember that the only right way to keep track of time in a computer is UTC. The core clock used to track important things should never be set to a local timezone and certainly not a daylight savings adjusted time.

The problem with local time is it's not consistent. Sometimes it runs backwards so that '2:31AM' occurs twice in one day. Sometimes it skips an hour; the time '2:31AM' simply does not exist for yesterday. If your database uses local timestamps in a transaction log it's going to be very confusing when things go backwards or skip around. And hourly estimate calculations are screwed up when some days have 23 hours, some have 25. I've even seen screensavers automatically activate at 2AM on a daylight savings time transaction because suddenly the computer had been idle an hour.

It's amazing how many computers get this wrong. Operating systems are mostly OK now; Unix has always gotten it right and I believe MacOS X and Windows XP/Vista all use an absolute time reference internally. But lots of software still uses local timestamps. Apache, for instance, logs its timestamps in local time. Don't do that.

For safety I set my server computers to the UTC time zone so even dumb apps still get an absolute time. A bit annoying to look at timestamps in California, but it works.

Amusing endnote: the OS/390 system Ken uses is shut down twice a year for the daylight savings transition. That's a problem of their local installation, not the OS.

  2007-03-12 15:42 Z
Back in 2000 I founded a distributed computing startup called Popular Power. Simple pitch: a for-profit platform like SETI@home, selling scavenged CPU cycles to big businesses. We couldn't raise the venture capital we needed and shut down in fall of 2001. A sad ending, but I'm still proud of what we did.

As is typical with big idea startups, when we started our business there was no competition. By the time we launched the product in April 2000 we knew of three or four competitors and when we shut down there were about ten. What happened to the most serious competition?

More inside ...

  2007-03-09 18:20 Z
Google Reader is a good RSS reader. I've used a variety of feed readers over the past few years; NetNewsWire, Bloglines, FeedDemon, etc. They all seem great at first and then eventually they start to suck. Google Reader is just shiny and new and awesome.

The UI is a freakin' marvel. Clean and simple, each story is presented nicely in a box for easy reading. The page is all AJAX up and down but not in an obtrusive way, it just works like you'd want. The UI seems simple, but underneath is a bunch of careful design and technological complications that make it work right. My favourite feature is the way scrolling down in the viewer automatically marks things read as you pass by them. So clever!

The only thing that would make the product perfect for me is a single key to mash to read the next item. Spacebar almost does it, but it has a bug for articles longer than one page (it scrolls down the article you're looking at, but then skips the next article). The j key does always go to next article, but doesn't scroll the current one if it's longer than one screen. And I wish I could go through the articles in my category order rather than the seemingly random order I get with "All items".

But those are minor quibbles. It's a great product in a space that's really needed some innovation. Thanks, guys!

PS: OPML is a good thing too. It's an awful format, but it works well enough to let me painlessly try out different readers. Took me 30 seconds to migrate from FeedDemon to Google Reader.

  2007-03-08 17:17 Z
Ken and I are headed back to France this spring. Six weeks this time; three months seemed too long last fall. We're leaving March 29 for two weeks of French classes in Aix-en-Provence followed by a month living in the Marais in Paris. We'll be back May 15.

Several folks have asked me about renting apartments in Paris. It's easy, there's a huge market of vacation rentals. A decent one bedroom will cost about $120-$200 a night, so if you're staying in Paris over a week it's a reasonable alternative to a hotel. I found our apartment last year via the broker Paristay but I probably wouldn't use a broker again; not much service for the fee. A better option is community sites like VRBO or Craigslist. I went the other direction and rented a place via a Paris apartment concierge service that exclusively manages a few apartments. I'm hoping that will insure quality.

  2007-03-07 19:55 Z